The author has rated this book PG (not necessarily suitable for children).
The quaint, little bell in the small gift shop tinkled as the front door opened, and Marcy Durham looked up from her sales report, surprise evident on her face. It was a Tuesday, and very little happened on Tuesday mornings. Monday was the coffee special, and Wednesday was buy-one-get-one-free greeting card day, but Tuesday was nothing special. Marcy, the shop owner, had been expecting another quiet morning.
As such, the arrival of the two short men, precisely one minute after she’d opened, was a welcome break to the usual Tuesday routine. At first glance they didn’t seem to be the usual clientele her shop on West Reitman Street attracted, but they seemed even more out of place due to their nearly identical appearance. It was as if they had stepped off an assembly line and right through her door.
The two little men couldn’t have been more than three-and-a-half feet tall. They were dressed in identical gray suits, a size too large, with bowler hats jammed over slicked-back hair. One wore a yellow bow tie, while the other’s was bright green. Even so, the oddest thing about them was the fluffy, pink slippers they wore on their feet. She considered asking them if they had escaped from the circus, but thought her chances of making a sale were probably better if she didn’t insult them.
These strange little men were, in fact, the first known aliens ever to set foot on the planet designated as “OR-35”—what the indigenous life forms called “Earth.” Zort, the one wearing the yellow bow tie, stopped and surveyed the interior of the shop. His scientific colleague, Quigbat, paused just behind him. Zort was pleased with what he saw. Though the shop was small, there were more than enough shelves and aisles to provide ample cover for the pair to quietly observe the social interaction of the humans.
Since this was the first scientific mission to this planet—and their first mission as well—Zort had chosen this particular location because his research determined that it would offer a wide variety of humans for observation while still providing an adequate amount of safety. He took additional pleasure in the fact that they had arrived as planned—the shop was empty, allowing them plenty of time to find the best spot to hide and study.
He took a moment to glance down and assure himself that his disguise was still intact. The Molecular Manipulation Unit was functioning perfectly, and it continued to maintain the cohesion of the human figure—which his research called a “calendar model male”—around him.
Phase one, ingression, was complete.
He glanced over at Quigbat and indicated, with a quick nod of the head, that they should proceed with phase two: concealment. Quigbat nodded in understanding, and they moved deeper into the purple-lace atmosphere, sauntering towards the middle of the store, and doing their best to appear as though they were normal purchasers of Earth-based items.
The only human present was the owner of the shop, who they were expecting. She watched them, as they walked down the aisle, with a bemused expression on her face. Trying not be obvious, Zort observed her right back. Though she seemed tall to them, she was of average human height, either five-foot-six or five-foot-seven by Earth measurements. She had shoulder-length red hair that Zort had learned was caused by the mutation of a human gene. He was curious to see what an Earth mutant would look like, but she did not appear any different from what his research indicated an Earth female should look like. She was trim with the appropriate amount of appendages, most likely in the lower range of three Earth-based decades. Her normal appearance was a bit of a disappointment, Zort admitted to himself, but also a relief as well.
They reached the middle of the store, still scouting for the best spot for observation, when their small, hyper-sensitive noses were ambushed by a round-house punch of perfume, cinnamon, and flowers. These aggressive odors assaulted their noses, and Zort knew he had made a mistake—a terrible, horrible mistake.
Marcy stepped out from behind the counter and was about to approach her unusual customers when they froze, and their eyes widened in shock. Their breathing became labored, moving in and out with an audible wheeze. The one wearing the green bow tie let out a short, high-pitched sneeze, quickly followed by another and another.
Zort’s eyes began to water, and he felt multiple sneezes, like Quigbat’s, assembling in his nose. It was clear that his research had failed them—at least in regards to the odors found in human enclosures. He realized that analyzing a single location (a “restroom,” which had contained a very unique smell) for ambient odors had been inadequate. He should have expanded his inquiry to include multiple locations, especially the one they had decided to use as their first exploratory location. But, as the first sneezed blasted forth from him, he realized it was too late for that.
Their first mission, which had started out precisely according to plan, had turned into a complete and utter disaster. There was no way they could remain in the shop, much less blend in with the Earthlings. The priority now became getting away as fast as they could.
Zort tried to find Quigbat through his blurred vision so he could tell him to abort the mission. Quigbat must have come to the same conclusion, because he was also attempting to locate Zort through his own watery eyes. As a result, neither one found the other, and they stumbled around with their arms flailing about. Quigbat turned in circles trying to grab Zort, while Zort crashed into a rack full of postcards and sat down hard, pictures of a donkey wearing sunglasses floating down around him.
Alarmed by this sudden change in demeanor, Marcy made her way down the aisle and approached the two little men. “Are you guys okay?” she asked. The one on the floor managed to twist his head toward her and emit a noise that sounded like “glarrg”.
Glarrg? thought Zort. That does not sound like human speech. The translation matrix must be malfunctioning! He sputtered a few additional “glarrgs” before he realized that sound was all that would come out of his mouth. It was a literal translation of the only noise he could make at the moment.
In desperation Quigbat wiped his eyes clear and for a brief moment managed to locate the door they had entered through. Before his eyes blurred again, he found Zort on the floor, hauled him to his feet, and pushed him out the door—back into the cleansing environment of fresh air. The door slammed shut behind them, and Marcy saw them disappear down the street more quickly then she thought those short legs could have moved.
I need to relocate out of downtown. Too many weirdos, she thought as she began to pick up the fallen postcards and replace them back into the rack. Then, a bright sparkle caught her eye. Close to the spot where the odd man had fallen down, she noticed a small, cylindrical object on the floor. She picked it up and looked at it. It was golden and smooth. Almost metallic, but it was soft to the touch—yielding just a bit when she squeezed it. There were no markings of any kind, but it appeared to fit into something, as one end was double notched.
“Well,” she said out loud, “when those guys come back to get this, I’ll be sure to charge admission. Ye-haw to that.”
The doorbell tinkled again, and she whipped around expecting to see the funny little guys, but it was one of her regular customers. She greeted the customer with a wave and stuffed the last few postcards into their appropriate slot. Then she tossed the golden object into a pocket of her coat, which was hanging behind the counter, and continued on with her morning.
Quigbat and Zort sped down the block, away from the toxic atmosphere of the gift shop. Pedestrians, engaging in their normal morning routine, stopped and gawked at the couple of little streaks as they rushed past. Two joggers jumped off the curb in order to avoid a collision.
“What the heck was that?” one yelled out in surprise.
“I have no idea,” the other replied, “but it looked like two little Charlie Chaplins.”
A young mother emerged from a coffee shop a few feet away. She held the hand of her young child who clutched a very tasty and sticky donut in the other hand. As the child was about to take another bite, a flash of gray sped in front of her and connected with the donut heading towards her mouth. The brown mass of the donut splattered into Zort’s eyes, obscuring his vision.
Scraping the destroyed donut out of his eyes, Zort realized that they had almost run past the street which led back to their concealed ship. He grabbed at Quigbat, managed to snag the collar of his suit, and yanked him hard to the right. They stumbled down a small side street and into a dirty alley that dead-ended in a large cul-de-sac. The cul-de-sac was filled with discarded boxes, moldy mattresses, and assorted other trash. In short, it was a place that was avoided by the humans, and it provided them with an excellent parking spot—or “base of operations” as Zort liked to say.
Even though Zort had regained his senses and managed to get them away from the curious eyes of the humans, Quigbat was still running full speed ahead. Zort tried to stop, or at least slow down, his companion, but the momentum was too much. Before Zort could let go of Quigbat’s suit collar, Quigbat plowed into a pile of boxes, and they both tumbled to a skidding stop.
Zort crawled to his hands and knees while letting out a grateful breath. His gray suit burst into a shower of tiny particles and disintegrated around him. The Molecular Manipulator Unit must have been damaged in the crash landing, and it could no longer maintain the cohesion of the suit. The pink slippers, hair, and hat also vibrated before dissolving as well.
Zort glanced down to his chest, and sure enough, the silver MMU that was attached to his form-fitting outer garment was cracked. A small wisp of smoke puffed out from it, drifted around his head, and dissipated into the air. With the loss of his disguise, a much more slender Zort got to his unsteady feet. The outer garment blended into gray skin that shimmered with a mild, blue iridescence. Four skinny fingers on each hand felt along his lithe body, probing for anything that might be broken. Finding that the four-toed feet, slim legs, and torso were as they should be, the fingers moved up the short neck to a smooth, oblong head. They explored large, dark blue eyes which sat in contrast to the tiny concave nose and narrow slit of a mouth. Although the MMU was damaged, Zort determined that he had not suffered any serious harm.
He directed his attention to Quigbat, who lay a few feet away staring up at the sky panting for breath. Quigbat still appeared to be dressed in the gray suit, as his MMU had not sustained any damage. Zort stared at Quigbat as his breathing slowed, and the glazed look in his eyes faded. Quigbat shook his head and looked around. His gaze found Zort and he gasped in surprised.
“What happened?” he asked, hopping to his feet. “Where are we?”
Zort made his way to Quigbat, took him by the arm, and led him over to a couple of discarded wood boxes where they sat down.
“We miscalculated, panicked like a couple of first-year students, and now we are back at the base of operations,” Zort said with a frown.
“Oh, good, where we parked the ship,” Quigbat said, and he blew out a grateful breath.
“Base of operations,” Zort said, a little too loudly and stood up, walking a few steps away from Quigbat.
“Yes, sorry, our base,” Quigbat said through a smirk. “I don’t remember getting here. Did anyone follow us?”
Zort turned his head and looked down the stretch of alleyway they had come, expecting to find a crowd of Earthlings staring at them—but it was deserted.
“It looks like we are alone,” he said and plopped back down on the box next to Quigbat.
“Good.” Quigbat deactivated his MMU and looked over at Zort. “What is that on your face?”
Zort became aware again of his sticky face.
“It looks disgusting,” Quigbat said helpfully. He looked around and found a greasy, discarded rag. He picked it up by a corner and handed it to Zort. The rag looked just as disgusting. Zort sighed, took the rag, and wiped off the smushed donut.
“Yuck,” Quigbat said helpfully, again.
Zort tossed the donut-encrusted rag aside and stared hard at Quigbat.
Quigbat stared back. “What?”
Zort said nothing, just continued to stare.
“Seriously, what?” Quigbat said, annoyed.
At last, Zort heaved a huge sigh, leaned his head back against the wall and said, “All of our carefully prepared research was wrong. We made ourselves look completely incompetent, and we failed our first mission. Actually, I wish we had only failed. We did not even last a single sub-rotation inside the target site. We did not fail. We were a complete and utter disaster. What will we say in our first report? We could not afford a blunder such as this.”
Zort sagged against the brick wall in utter dejection. Quigbat didn’t reply. He pushed around the donut rag around with his foot a few times, and then looked up at Zort.
Attempting a casual tone he said, “We could be creative with our first report.”
Zort leapt to his feet. “You mean fabricate it!” he yelled. “How could we do that? Would we conjure, out of thin air, the information we were supposed to get? Would we inform the Scientific Academy that, yes, we have the objects we were supposed to acquire, but that they are just in a different room?” Zort stomped around the boxes, waving his hands.“Oh yes, Bivgast sir, we have everything, but we do not want to show you right now! Why not? Because we want it to be a surprise!”
Quigbat clamped his hand over Zort’s mouth. “Quiet! You’ll draw attention to our parking, uh, base of operations.” He pushed Zort back down onto one of the boxes and stood in front of him. “We don’t have to lie. We just need to stall, so there is time to adjust our approach and try again. We say we ran into ‘unforeseen issues’ and had to ‘prematurely abort’ the mission. That’s not really inaccurate, right? We just tell them we’ve recalculated the timeline and will complete the mission by the next cycle. That will work.”
Zort opened his mouth to argue back, but stopped and considered. “Yes, that could work. Extending the timeline a bit is not unheard of. We can file an abbreviated report, correct for our inaccurate research, and then complete the mission. The first thing we must do is program the MMU’s for a different disguise.”
“Yes!” Quigbat said. “I’ll take care of that, and you file our first report.”
Zort cracked a big smile at Quigbat and pounded him on the back.
“All right,” said Quigbat, “problem solved. Let’s get back into the ship and start working.”
Zort let out a laugh of relief and reached into the pocket of his outer garment. He froze and pushed his hand farther into the pocket. Terror dawned on his face and he turned to Quigbat.
“What is it now?” Quigbat asked in a shaky voice.
“The key,” Zort wheezed out. “I have lost the key to the ship.”
Quigbat stared at Zort, eyes wide. “You lost the key to the ship?” he asked just loud enough to be heard.
Zort opened his mouth but couldn’t think of any way he could say “yes” without meaning “yes”, so he shut it.
“Where did you drop it? Could it be here in this cul-de-sac?” Quigbat spun, looking around in wild circles.
Zort dove into the nearest pile of trash and began to throw trash every which way in a frantic search. Quigbat joined in the melee as old magazines and fruit rinds danced around the air in a moldy ballet.
As the two aliens rearranged the trash piles, Quigbat yelled out between tosses, “I think you should stop calling this our base of operations. The only thing operating here is our incompetence!”
Zort heaved half of a slimy cantaloupe over Quigbat’s head—deciding at the last moment for over rather than at—“Really? That is what you care about right now?” Zort stood upright, his eyes glazing over. “There is too much trash. This will take multiple rotations to search.”
Shoving Quigbat out of the way, he rushed over to their ship and pressed a light green indentation under one of the stubby wings. A small compartment, about the size of an earth car’s glove box, opened. Zort reached in and pulled out a cylindrical object. If it wasn’t being held by a sweaty alien under a silver spaceship splattered with month-old coffee grinds, it could have been mistaken for a flashlight.
Quigbat jerked upright and yelled, “What do you think you’re doing?”
Zort ignored him and stepped out from under the wing of their ship. He pointed the object at a pile of trash and pressed a switch. A bolt of sparkling orange energy erupted from the open end of the cylinder. The poor pile of trash never knew what hit it, and cardboard boxes disappeared in a flash of flame.
“Zort! Stop it!” Quigbat made a run for Zort. A musty mattress took the energy beam full in its springs, arched into the air, and blew apart with an anguished squeak. Quigbat dove, hit Zort square in the chest, and they rolled over into several black plastic bags, coming to rest on the soft pile.
“Are you out of your Xunipian skull?” Quigbat yelled. He straddled Zort’s chest and pinned his arms to the ground. “Not only will that plasma slicer atomize the key, if you haven’t done so already, you’re going to bring the Earthlings right to us. Stop right now!”
The aliens glared at each other, chests heaving with exertion. A single, singed coffee filter twirled down in a lazy circle and came to rest, gently, right on top of Quigbat’s head. The desperation of the moment faded, and Zort blinked his eyes a few times. He looked at Quigbat, and then around at the pile of trash bags.
“This is the second time we have recently ended up in a pile of refuse. I did not find it pleasant then and even less so now. Please remove yourself from me.”
Quigbat let out a short snort of laughter and rolled off of Zort’s chest. The two associates, with a small amount of pain, got to their feet, walked back over to the boxes they had left, and sat back down.
“I apologize for my overreaction,” Zort said, having regained his calm. “I realize that we will need to proceed in a more planned and logical manner in order to locate the lost key.”
“Now you’re making sense,” Quigbat smiled and slapped Zort on the shoulder. “A plan is exactly what we need.”
“I believe that the most efficient method of locating the lost key will be to retrace our steps back to the point of origin. I suspect that the key was lost during our, uh, strategic retreat away from RP-001, or possibly, while gathering information inside.”
“RP-001?” Quigbat asked, wrinkling up the side of one eye very much the way an eyebrow is raised in a wry manner, except the lack of any sort of eyebrows lessened the intended impact. “What has your quirky little mind come up with now?”
“Quigbat, please. You need to start retracing our steps immediately. The longer you wait, the greater the chance that we do not recover the key.”
“What does ‘RP-001’ mean? And why does it have to be me?”
“It will have to be you, since my MMU has been damaged.”
“All the more reason that I know what ‘RP-001’ means!”
“Every designation I use is in the appendix of the mission briefing I prepared for you. Did you not read it?”
“There was nothing brief about it. It almost filled up an entire data pad.”
Zort sighed and gave in, “Reconnaissance Position One.”
“Oh.” Quigbat nodded his head. “That’s good. I like it. Very well, let me reactivate my MMU, and I’ll head back and see what I can find.”
“You will have to choose a new garment configuration from the limited amount in the MMU’s memory. The complete volume is inside the ship. Besides, I do not think that our first disguise accurately represented Earthing garments.”
“I did notice that we got a few funny looks. Especially from the female back at…er, RP-001.” Quigbat flipped the unit over and opened a panel in the back. A small screen lit up and Quigbat swiped his fingers across it. “What do you suggest?”
“Perhaps we were too formal. Might a more casual approach serve us better?” Zort moved behind Quigbat and looked over his shoulder. “Scroll through the recreational category.”
Quigbat flipped through the list of categories until he reached the end. “And what, exactly, did you call that category?”
“EAI-C,” Zort pointed to it on the screen.
Quigbat thought for a moment before he glanced back at Zort. “EAI-C. I got nothing. What is that?”
“Earthling Apparel Inventory, Casual.” Zort smiled proudly.
“Ah. That’s ridiculous.” Quigbat selected the category and flipped through the images, while Zort sputtered in defense of his naming convention. Quigbat selected an ensemble that looked like a good choice and held up the unit for Zort to see. “How about this?”
Zort was still trying to articulate the importance of a having an accurate and concise way to identify data but decided to address it later. He agreed with Quigbat’s choice. Quigbat entered the selection into the unit, closed the back panel, and reattached it to his suit. He activated the unit from the front, and with a whisper and shuffle of rearranged molecules, a new disguise formed around him. Zort stepped back and walked around Quigbat with a critical eye.
The gray bowler had been replaced with a hat in the style of an Earth game that involved the striking of a small, white ball with a large instrument constructed of indigenous wood. It was also gray, and a long bill stuck out in front, extending for six Earth inches. The constructed face was hairless, and a baggy gray shirt hung down below the waist, almost covering up a pair of baggy shorts.
“Very good,” Zort said after a thorough appraisal. “You should pass for one of them much better this time.”
“Super. Now, let’s synchronize our chronos. What sub-rotation do you have?”
Zort looked at the back of his hand, at a thin black strip glowing with some green markings on it. “I have five sub-rotations. I estimate you can do a sufficient search for another two rotations. If you do not locate the key outside, return here, and we will wait until their day cycle has ended. Then we will return to RP-001 when the Earthlings have entered into their night cycle. RP-001 should be unoccupied.”
“Great! Two rotations, then return back here. Off I go.”
Zort crept back into the corner of the alleyway and hid himself behind the discarded boxes. From there, he watched a resolute Quigbat study the street before proceeding down the alley wearing bright pink slippers.
Zort pulled the boxes around him and tucked himself into the shadows. Better to be prepared. Never know what might wander down here.
He shifted his position, trying to find a more comfortable angle at which to stretch out his legs and felt something dig into his hip. Ah, yes, my holo-corder. He reached into a small pocket slit in his suit and pulled out a thin, glossy, black object about the same size as his palm. He looked at it and sighed. So much for capturing holographic data of RP-001. Just one more reminder of our failure. He slid his finger along one side of the device, and it began to glow with a gentle, yellow light. He flipped through a few recorded images and selected one. A disembodied head materialized a few feet in front of Zort, projected from the device.
The head belonged to Bivgast, the lead scientist at the Xunipian Science Academy. He was looking at Zort with an expression that seemed to suggest he was about to eat a spoiled egg against his will.
“Quigbat,” Bivgast sighed, “must you holo-capture this?”
Zort’s head materialized next to Bivgast. “Quigbat, put that away! This is a serious moment.”
A bit lower in volume, Quigbat could be heard saying, “Please? It will make our families so proud to see it.”
Zort shrugged an apology at Bivgast and dematerialized as he moved out of the holo-image. Bivgast sighed and returned his gaze back to the real Zort, who continued to watch the holo-image.
“Zort and Quigbat, it is my…pleasure to announce that the Xunipian Science Academy has authorized you both for a reconnaissance and data gathering mission to planet OR-35.”
The holo-image of Director Bivgast wobbled and shook as Zort heard the recorded voice of Quigbat give out a happy whoop.
“Quigbat, please!” Bivgast shouted, and the imaged settled back down. “I am stating for the record that I was in absolute opposition of this assignment, but the majority of the Science Quorum did not share in my views. So, make no mistake—your tether is very short. We expect quality results with minimally wasted resources, or you can be sure that it will be many cycles before you are presented with another opportunity like this.”
Zort appeared back in the image and solemnly shook the director’s hand. “Thank you, Director Bivgast. We will affirm the Quorum’s faith in us.” The image wavered again and began to fade. Bivgast looked at the holo-corder as one might look at the gift of a dead bird presented by a domesticated cat, and then his face faded and was gone.
Zort sighed and shut off the device. Quigbat better find that key so we can salvage this mission.
He glanced down at his chrono and saw that Quigbat still had a full rotation to go before he was due back.
He reclined further into the boxes behind him and tried to come up with a clever way in which they might sort out this debacle of a mission—but a solution was more elusive than Zort was hoping for.
Copyright© D.E. Morris. All rights reserved.
This book listing was made possible through donations to the Index GoFundMe campaign. Consider donating to help more indie authors gain exposure for their work. See other awardees.