A Story in Elrod's MAU Universe
by Kristin Darken
My grandfather passed early in the Spring, sitting on his porch watching a rainstorm. I wasn't there, hadn't even been in the state for more than a decade as I pursued my career in places more heavily populated and far less inclined to be fascinated by the power of mother nature. That didn't stop me from picturing the smile that would have splashed across his face as lightning flickered and he counted out the distance to the thunder. One Mississippi. Two choc-late pudding. Three cans of Pringles. And so on.. every set of five silly second long phrases marking a mile's distance to the bolt of energy.
As my grandfather aged, the small portion of Native American blood from a few generations earlier... Seneca, if I remembered correctly, had become more obvious in his features and he'd acquired some of that sharp hawkish knife's edge look that Native elders got. He'd never needed to shave. My father, another step removed, had struggled with trying to grow his scraggly chin whiskers all through my youth... never quite succeeding in even a rough beard but also not light enough growth to avoid shaving all together.
Dad was gone too. Three months after granddad, in the peak of Summer. He hadn't really been well, circulation problems in his legs among other things, but his death was unexpected... and early. His co-workers said he simply collapsed at work. He never got up. It had been even longer since I'd seen him than other parts of my family and home state. I'd mostly grown up without him in my life and without that connection, there was very little to tie us together. Our interests and outlooks on the world were just too different.
As first born son of the first born son... and that actually went back a few generations, there's an old picture in a newspaper from when I was a baby that shows five generations of us; what little property we had fell to me. Not that there was much of it. We were a working class family and houses had long since been sold to pay for retirement expenses. The land had once been attached to the old family home, but split off when the house had sold. Twenty seven acres bordered on most of its edges by neighboring farms, beautiful wooded country with a spring fed stream running through it, widening to create a pond twice; once naturally and once as a result of an artificial dam behind the old house. If only I had the money to develop it. I didn't, though. Nor did I really have the extra income to cover taxes on the property for the years between the present and some future point where my finances would enable me to build on it. As much as I hated the idea, selling it was probably the only way to get anything out of it beyond just being able to say I owned the land.
Now that I was standing on the ground, looking across the quiet pond, breathing in the country air as the sun raced down towards the tree hidden horizon, I wondered if it was more than just sentimentality that had prevented me from immediately telling Dad's lawyer to just sell it. I didn't get out of the city much anymore, long hours and overlapping projects tended to make the idea of time off and vacations impossible. In fact, I had a deadline coming up that had to be met, funeral and responsibilities be damned... if I didn't meet it, the money that I needed to pay next month's bills would have to cover two months and money just isn't that elastic. Fortunately, finishing the project on time would pay out enough to keep things rolling for another couple months; though it was neither in my nature or the way the business worked to wait and hope something came along in a couple months. I'd take the next work that was available. And keep doing so until I had enough to retire.
When the property had included the house, the paths in to the larger, natural pond and up around the hills behind it had been cleared regularly. Granddad took the truck to the lumber, cutting up fallen trees for firewood. In the years since, they'd grown up, brush along the sides encroaching tighter and tighter. They were still wide enough to walk, if you didn't mind knee length brush, but you certainly wouldn't find it easy to run a truck or tractor through here now. It looked untouched. I doubted more than a handful of hunters had walked though these trees in the last dozen years... compared with the traffic on the street outside my apartment, it felt... peaceful.
I hadn't intended to get too deep into the woods, not that a couple dozen acres is enough to get deep anywhere, but I remembered a point between the two hills where you could look out over most of the lower part of the property, including the pond, and sitting on the rocks there for hours when I was young. It wouldn't take much longer to get there... and if I were going to sell the land, it would be my last chance to see from my 'nest' as my gran had called it.
The view was everything I had remembered, and I had to remind myself to breath as I looked out over the pond and down the stream. There was a tree down, over by the small waterfall, and brush had built up enough it was backing things up a little. Another tree looked to be mostly dead but was still standing down where the deer tended to hide in against the hillside. But the big disruption from what I expected was a strip of torn of trees, brush, and soil across the lower part of the trail to the other end of the pond from where I'd come up. At first guess, I thought that the only thing that could do something like that would be a plane crash... but there didn't seem to be any wreckage. At the same time, it didn't appear like anything had been on fire or hot... like a meteorite.
I quickly cut short my sentimental sight seeing and headed down the hill, curiosity pushing me along at what was probably not the safest pace given how many years it had been since I'd last walked the path... and my age. I certainly wasn't that ten year old boy anymore. In fact, I was about as close to retirement as you can get and still have parents in the work force. Not that I had any hope of retiring... maybe if I won the lottery.
At five ten and over three hundred pounds, I was probably in better shape than most people would have guessed. I kept fairly active and ate nutritiously, but the stressful work environment, irregular hours, and an unusual metabolism kept me heavier than is popular these days. Still, its a lot of weight to be moving around rocky hillsides on a Summer afternoon. So, with shadows lengthening, I was breathing quite heavily when I got to the foot of the path. Whatever had caused this had indeed come out of the sky like an aircraft or meteorite. You could see at the east end where it had broken through some of the upper branches of a fir and then one large scar, long dried over about twenty feet up on the trunk of a maple. Then it had glanced off a couple oaks before slamming into a pile of brush and cratering. But as I'd observed from above, there didn't appear to be any fire or heat damage to any of the surroundings.
After pulling aside some brush and accidentally flushing a quail, which added a racing heartbeat to my labored breathing, I uncovered an unusual object. It was about the size of a early model laptop – a couple inches less than a foot wide, a couple inches longer than a foot long. It was deeper than a tablet or recent laptop, three or four inches deep and all shiny metal, but without any obvious indentation or variation on most of the surfaces. The... 'top'... had a unique logo pattern on it, not unlike the Apple or Alienware systems. My first reaction was that there was no way a laptop, even a hardened military grade one, would have survived the impacts this thing had made on the trees here. I glanced back up through it's landing arc, but there wasn't much arc to it... it was steep and it had little curve... that meant high and fast, and a long way away if it was a ballistic path. Which it had to be, of course... because the other option meant it dropped out of the sky from orbit or beyond.
I wished, for a moment, that I had a Geiger counter. That... I wasn't going to kill myself with radiation if I reached in and picked it up, but honestly? I wasn't leaving it here. That possibility had such a low probability that even mentioning it gave it more credibility than it deserved. No, even if it were radioactive; I'd just have found some way to protect myself before grabbing it. But no counter or way to test it... I picked it up.
And nothing. It didn't feel warm to the touch. Not that I expected it to be hot from the landing... that had clearly been months if not years ago. But really, metal just sitting in the sun even shaded by brush should have had some heat to it. It felt neutral, somehow. More like picking up produce... or leather. It wasn't hotter than air temperature... or cooler. Despite the look, I wondered if it were metal at all. It was certainly lighter than a laptop of that size might be expected to weigh. I knew that from personal experience... carrying around a laptop to work on projects anywhere I might be had cause more than one pain in my neck... and back... over the years. This was more like carrying a paperback book or a tablet with eight or ten times the volume. In a pack, you'd hardly recognize that there was any weight to it.
I flipped it around a couple times, using the remaining sunlight peaking through the trees to look for other markings, breaks or seams. At this point my best guess on its origin? It was some sort of new alloy being used for... something... military and it had broken off or fallen from an aircraft. That didn't really explain the unusual marking or logo, but I couldn't think of another reason for just a block of metal to be made like this. Maybe it was a platinum ingot and I was about to be ridiculously wealthy? Unlikely, but it made for a nice bit of wishful thinking for the rest of the walk back to the car.
The drive back to the hotel where I was staying for the trip home took a while, the nearest hotel was at the interstate but it had reached the status of run down and old when I'd been a kid and the years since hadn't been any kinder to it than they had been to me. Truthfully, the same could be said of almost everything I passed as I took back country roads between state highways until I was close enough to the outer suburbs to find more recently built hotels and shopping complexes. The area had clearly been hit by the rough economic times, but it was my experience that a lot of the East coast rural areas looked like this. Entire towns qualified as historic buildings and that limited the sorts of rebuilding and improvements that could be put in. Even a regular fresh coat of paint couldn't really hide the age of buildings approaching two centuries old. But you knew an area was run down when even the chain link fences looked old.
It probably didn't help that I knew a lot of these roads well enough to recognize the buildings and the changes... or lack of them. I'd moved on, lived in a lot of urban settings with new growth and modern architecture. These were old and worn and comfortable for my grandparents, maybe. But to me, they seemed lost and left behind... and it gave me a little insight into the problems facing the country, the difference in perspective on science, technology, and our population growth. I'd spent a couple years being the wide eyed country bumpkin in the big city, to the amusement of my city kid buddies in the service. But I'd been enough of an explorer to take what I found and adapt.
Thinking back on the perspective of sitting on the hill and looking out over my grandfather's property, I wondered if maybe I'd adapted too much... but this? This wasn't the answer either. They were stagnant... with neither the connection to a beautiful, peaceful natural setting or the clean, efficient, functional nature or artistic aesthetic of more modern and contemporary ones. But then, there probably hadn't been an influx in the economy in this area since the mills closed and the strip mining finished destroying wood and farmland in a third of the county. I had no idea how anyone here even made a living anymore... a few farms looked to still be raising dairy cattle, but most? Maybe they took turns working at the grocery and department stores for each other.
Most of the hotel looked dark and empty as I pulled into the lot. That was good and bad. It would be good for sleeping, unless my luck placed me near one of the other guests and they decided to be loud. That was unlikely though, as I'd booked a nicer room and most people using this sort of hotel booked the cheapest thing they could get. If they wanted nicer, they typically went to a higher class hotel. But I didn't want to drive a couple hours every time I stepped out of my room to get something done with family or lawyers or... whatever came up. And bad... it looked like the hotel's bar was closed. So... other options?
Chesper's, Andrew Woodson's, or... fast food. Those were the in-sight options. I wasn't ready to call it a night, but I did feel like having a drink and that meant walking distance instead of going looking for something better. Even if I hadn't been inclined towards fast food, wanting a drink pretty much limited my option to Chesper's. Mmmm... overpriced food, understrength drinks, and young couples post-college having 'drinks' with friends.
Almost as an afterthought, I grabbed the box and took it in with me. Probably best if I didn't leave it in the car, anyway.
To my surprise, the Chesper's wasn't a crowded mess of young professionals. It was, in fact, almost empty. An older couple were splitting one of the steak meals in one corner and a man about my own age, mid-forties, in a suit with his tie undone and tossed back over his shoulders was picking over the remains of a plate of nachos at the bar.
The hostess gave me a chipper smile and gestured with a menu as if to give me a selection from the choices.
“A booth, away from the televisions please.”
She looked at me a little curiously, then looked back towards the bar and taking in the large screen televisions and visual cacophony. After a moment of looking around, she led me to a side tier by the windows which was, indeed, away from the televisions. I don't think she'd ever been asked for that particular seating arrangement before. Surprising, because I asked for it almost everywhere I went and I knew more than a few people who did the same.
“I'm Mindy. I'll be your hostess tonight,” she informed me as I approved of the location.
It was one of those contemporary things I could do without... restaurants, bars, clubs... were social settings, not places to go and glue yourself to a screen you could see at home. Sure, it had grown out of the sports bar concept... which made sense, especially for guys who didn't have a home large to get everyone inside and didn't want to spring for a television that cost as much as their car. But beyond that? Now every beer hall and restaurant tried to have at least three different games or news stations in your field of view at all times. That was as bad as bars who thought their music had to be as loud as it was at the live concert.
I slid into the booth and caught the menu she waved in my direction.
“Can I get you started with a drink?”
“Please. Top shelf whiskey, a single malt scotch if you have it... a double, a separate glass with a couple cubes of ice in it, a glass of ice water, and a glass of ice tea no sweetener, I won't need the tea until you bring my meal.” I rattled off... and then gave her my usual apologetic grin. “Sorry, the rest will be normal I promise... I'm just picky about my scotch.”
She nodded, eyes wide. “I'll get this started while you look at the menu?”
I'd long since stopped trying to explain about the surface area of ice cubes allowing the bouquet of a drink to fill the glass more easily and that having a separate glass allowed me to splash some of the alcohol onto the ice and sip it without the ice melting and diluting the whole glass... especially when ordering more than one shot... or finger at a time. There were some who liked a little water in their drink and the ice melt worked for them... I wasn't one of them. Water to cleanse my palette, yes... but not in the same sip. Also, I wasn't going to pay for an expensive whiskey with subtle flavors to drink opposite the sort of strongly spiced foods that places like this served... a decision confirmed by a quick glance at the liberal use of jalepeno's in about half the images on the menu. A nicely bitter tea on the other hand?
Three glasses, a proper mix of liquids in them, slid on to my table but the look on the hostess' face was not encouraging. Even less so when I realized that I had yet to see any other waitstaff.
“That's Glenlivet...” she explained, though I knew already... not through any special refined sense of taste or smell but because I'd already nodded confirmation and acceptance at the bartender when he'd gestured it questioningly in my direction before pouring. “I'm afraid I have some bad news... our kitchen... is closing up early tonight. The manager already gave them the ok to get started.”
“I see. Do you have anything you can prepare for me? Even as take out? I'm staying at the hotel next door and my options are limited. A flicker outside caught my eye and the two of us watched as the Andrew Woodson's next door turned off most of its lights. I gave the Chesper's hostess a wry grin. “See what I mean?”
She snorted, looked horribly embarrassed and covered her face.
“How about the soup and salad to go? I can get out of your hair and let you close down and get home.”
“Thanks, we probably would have already closed up but Jim's parents have dinner here once a week and we were just waiting for them to finish,” she gestured at the bartender and the older couple I'd noticed earlier. She quickly crossed the room and ducked into the kitchen.
In the meantime, I splashed some of the scotch into the glass with the ice in it and gave it a gentle shake to bounce the ice through the whiskey. While it sat for a moment, I spent a little time checking out my find under the lights. I quickly confirmed what I'd worked out in the woods. There was nothing that looked like any sort of opening or place where one part or another might slight out to reveal... anything. I took a sip of the whiskey, savoring the flavor. I splashed a bit more over the ice. I was about to run my hand across the pattern on the top when I was interrupted.
“New laptop?” the hostess asked, having come back to the table. “I don't recognize the logo. Most people are getting tablets, you know.”
“Me either. New company,” I dissembled, not really wanting to admit I found it in a crater in the woods.
“The kitchen is putting together a to go box for you. We're calling it soup and salad, but I think they were happy enough not to have to fire anything back up or reverse any of the clean up they've already done... that it'll probably have more than just a bowl of soup and a salad.”
“I appreciate it. It wouldn't have been the first time I've gone to bed with just whiskey for dinner, but I'm more than a few years past the point where I think I can do it without paying the consequences for it,” I told her with a smile. And I did appreciate it. They could very easily have shown me the door and let me take my business to the fast food place across the street.
“I hear that,” she agreed. “It'll be a few minutes while they put that together for you. Any preferences on dressings? Anything specific you don't want on the salad or soup?”
“A balsamic vinaigrette if you have it,” I suggested, getting a nod that they did. “Otherwise, no. No allergies or anything... told you, other than my scotch, I'm easy.”
“I'll be back with you when it's ready.”
She took off again, stopping to check in with Jim's parents and then bussing the nacho plate from the bar along the way to the kitchen. I wondered if they'd already sent waitstaff home... or just not had them scheduled for the evening. Not that my meager server and food service experience lent me any great insight on the ideal working of a restaurant crew, I'd flipped burgers and supervised a shift at a small restaurant out of financial necessity during college, but that was a long time ago... and had only lasted as long as needed to solve the problems I'd faced financially.
I sipped my Glenlivet and flipped through my mental scrapbook. Deaths, especially friends and close family, over the past year or two... had really made me consider whether my life was where I wanted it to be. Not that I was any more or less content before or after... but, I was different. I don't know if I was more contemplative... or wise... and probably wasn't, as the saying went “only a fool thinks he's wise.” But I had made choices along the way and justified them by claiming to have made those choices because it was 'right' and that to go the other route would be selfish. Now... if felt like cowardice. Or that I was lazy. I could have taken a harder road, and admittedly, it could have been a selfish choice... but in the long run, so was the road I had taken. And maybe... in making this choice, I'd missed my true calling and my chance to be happy.
And truth was... I wasn't happy.
Sitting there. Sipping Glenlivet in a Chesper's not far from where I grew up but thousands of miles from anyone who really knew me... I could admit it. To myself, at least. And in five days, I would get on a plane and return to work. I would create fun and entertaining things for other people, I would build worlds and tell stories. I would write manuals that explained to people how to use something that they'd bought, and occasionally, how to put it together from parts. And people would see me as a hard worker and a thinker, a creator and artistic guy... and not a one of them would know. Or think to ask.
Existential crisis? Middle age thing? Maybe I just needed to sell granddad's land, buy a convertible, spend a bunch of money on a young blond and get on with life. Nah, I knew better than that. I knew myself quite well, actually, for someone who didn't spend an hour in therapy every week. I knew why I wasn't happy... there simply wasn't a way to get there from here. I pulled out my wallet and flipped a piece of plastic down on the table.
Mindy picked it up a moment later, coming from and going to somewhere across the room... she was on the ball. A minute later, she ghosted back through, sliding a faux leather folder onto the table with my card sticking out the top of it. I glanced over the bill: Glenlivet, Soup and Salad meal, Iced Tea. $13. I felt my eyebrows start to rise as she returned again, this time to deliver a bag full of to go containers. I did a quick inventory of what was there... the salad looked amazing and was enormous, completely filling one box. The soup container looked like a family size and probably had three or four bowls of soup. Another full size box and a couple small ones were full of appetizers and a desert, and there was a drink cup filled with at least half a gallon of tea.
“We comped the tea,” Mindy pointed out. “They'd have just poured the rest out, anyway.”
“You comped a lot more than just tea,” I chuckled. I wrote in a $50 dollar tip. I heard the intake of breath and stopped her. “If you feel its too much, split it with the kitchen.”
“I... we already do that,” she noted, swallowing her actual response.
“I'm used to big city pricing... paying that for a meal and alcohol is pretty normal. And I'd never have gotten this,” I pointed out, gesturing at the feast in front of me, “at one of those places. So it only seems right.”
She nodded, taking the receipt and the folder off to a register somewhere without responding, while I gathered up the bags, swallowed the last of my whiskey, slid the metal box off the table, and headed for the exit.
“Cheers, Mate,” the bartender saluted me as I opened the door, the first words out of him that I'd heard the whole time ringing with a traditional and thick Australian accent.
The door swung shut behind me as I blinked in shock that I'd found an Australian in a rural no where's land bartending for a small chain restaurant. It took a moment to shake off and I realized that I could always stop in again before I left and chat with him about what had brought him to this part of the world. And his parents. Had he grown up here and still somehow kept the accent? Regardless, I had hot food cooling... and cold food warming. A problem that would be easily solved by much eating. There were going to be leftovers though... a lot of them.
I won't go into the dinner in great detail. It was good and I did my best to eat the things that were least likely to store well... which meant most of the soup went untouched and straight into the fridge. It was good, but it would still be good tomorrow reheated for lunch in the microwave. Some of the appetizers, though, would lose their appeal as soon as they cooled off... without an oven or fryer to reheat them. I also made a valiant attempt at killing the salad... unsure of how well the produce would hold up unsealed in a mini-fridge.
All in all, the service had ultimately been better than the food. It was decent compared to similar franchise fare; but it was far from a high end restaurant... or the sort of specialty place that I occasionally wrote reviews or marketing material for. But I was not the sort of foodie or gourmet who let that stop me.
Leftovers packaged up and stored away, I took a quick shower. I wasn't a mess after my hike and drive... but I was sticky enough that I didn't want to climb into bed without cleaning up. I was toweling dry my hair when I happened to look over at the box sitting on the table and the logo caught my eye again. Even from a low angle, I could still see it pretty clearly; almost as though it were sticking out above the surface even though up close it looked more like it was engraved... and was actually neither, as there were no variations in the level of the surface. An enigma stamped on a conundrum. I ran my fingers over the logo... and immediately freaked out when the box started to 'flow' away from my fingers.
The bed hit the back of my legs hard enough I had probably bruised myself backing into it at that speed. Understandably, considering I was watching solid metal grow in size – length, width, and height. Then, as it grew higher, it slid to the side of the table... like I'd seen plates or glasses do, when they had enough water under them to create a seal and float across a smooth surface... and dropped off. It hit the carpet, softly... far too softly for the size it now was... and then quickly finished growing until I was looking at a box that, for all reasonable purposes, could be compared with the size of a phone booth.
Now, in that moment; I wasn't thinking anything useful or even meaningful. I was in a stunned, unthinking state somewhere equally influenced by panic, fear, and awe. You have to understand, my background might not be in research; but I spent enough time writing and communicating with those research scientists on how to get funding, writing grants, and so forth to know what was currently possible and what was being developed. I also spent enough time with science fiction authors and their work to have a good idea what was next, and a rough look into the developments of the next few centuries.
At the same time, I had an open mind and had experienced things in my youth that all the science in my lifetime couldn't yet explain. I believed in magick, for example. Oh, not the sort that involved blasts of fire and lightning against supernatural foes that appeared in contemporary fiction... but the subtle stuff, all the more powerful for its not being so visible: manipulation of the human energy fields, influencing choices to introduce less probable reality strings, healing, and so forth. I believed that, some day, science would come to incorporate much of that type of magick into its understanding of the greater human nature and that the only reason it hadn't happened already was the resistance to see things called magick as anything other than 'faith' and fake.
The two bodies of knowledge and mindsets were often in opposition if not outright contradiction. But in that moment, that box was breaking the rules of what both sides of me could accept. Metals didn't flow... well, they did, when they were above the temperature where they became a liquid... mercury, for instance, was a liquid at most temperatures where a human might encounter it. But this hotel room was much cooler than the hot afternoon in the woods and it had been solid at every point at which I had touched it at human body temperature, so temperature probably wasn't the answer.
A magnetic or force field of some sort could have been wrapped around the liquid metal, constraining it to a finite space or being the actual surface barrier... that could explain it. Or nanotech. Our nanotech was still in its infancy and we didn't have any force fields yet, despite their prevalence in sci-fi shows; but that was more a matter of development on the engineering side. In theory, they worked, and it would just be a matter of time before we figured out how to make them work practically. But if this box were using either... that meant it wasn't ours. As in, not of this Earth...
When it stopped... growing... expanding? It was shaped, ironically enough, like a phone booth. You would think aliens would have cell phones to phone home. Actually... maybe not. Cell systems work using locally placed towers tied into a network, and there wouldn't be a network for a small communications device to tie in to on an isolated planet. Maybe ET did need a phone booth to reach home. Of course, I was letting the exterior size and shape guide my decision on what this thing was. Form might follow function... but that was relative to the user. A pen might be a simple writing tool for a human sized biped with a thumb, but be completely useless and incomprehensible to a whale.
I carefully approached the booth to see a modestly sized display emerge from the surface at eye height and begin scrolling some sort of start up display. Or possibly a message of some kind. Languages weren't my strong point, but I hadn't seen anything like this outside Lovecraftian horror fan sites or a hand full of role playing games. It could be a cypher, breakable if I only had a key... but a hunch told me that what I was looking at on that screen was just as alien as the box it was on. An alien language... not something that I could just crack and convert to English. It could be an advertising billboard soliciting my phone service, the best price in this arm of the galaxy for calls over two lightyears. Or it could be the padlock off the gateway to Cthulhu's place of slumber and what was scrolling across that page was the horrifying warning of what would happen if it were broken and the sleeper woke...
Below the display, a red crystalline area shaped a bit like a three fingered hand emerged. A touch pad of some sort, perhaps? I gave myself permission to do the insane and placed my hand in it, Vulcan style, while hoping that my 'logic' hadn't just led me to bringing an elder god into the world. Cthulhu plushies were a fun joke... the real being? Not so much.
At that moment the language stopped scrolling, pulsed a couple times and then the display reconfigured itself into some sort of interface, at the center of which was displayed... Cthulhu. I jerked back, more than a little freaked out. I wasn't a fan of horror but I knew enough about Lovecraft's mythos to know to leave large sleeping elder gods sleep. Why couldn't it have just been ET's phone booth? ET didn't hurt anyone... he certainly didn't drive anyone mad and destroy worlds.
The display flickered and replaced the tentacled monstrosity with the weird little alien from the 1982 movie, glowing finger tip and all.
What in... what the hell was going on here? The possibility that the Cthulhu mythos was real was slim, for certain, but it was far more believable that our fears of such things were driven by ancient racial memory of something similar... than that the little movie alien was based on something real. That didn't even begin to get into the possibility that those two aliens would be shown, given that they were the ones on my mind as I investigated the box. On my mind...
I switched my mental channel over to the Star Wars universe, thinking about another small wrinkled alien... the Master Jedi, Yoda. The old alien appeared on the display, slowly rotating through various camera angles. I stepped closer, noting all the interface data scrolling in the sidebars. Yoda was missing a lightsaber until I realized that it wasn't there and then it was. Then it was in his hand, flashing around the small alien as he moved through the patterns of Ataru, one of the Jedi fighting forms. I recognized it, in the sense that I remembered that Yoda fought using Ataru and this looked like how I had seen him fight in the movies and animation episodes... but I didn't know the style, personally. So somehow, this thing was taking prompts from me... from what I was thinking... but then it was supplementing that information from... what? Other people? The internet?
So, it was capable of showing images of aliens and potentially evaluating their abilities and historical data based on mental input and research through local data or media. Not quite as useful as live recordings, but certainly a less visible means to collect that information than to haul around the equipment. That assumed that they could get a local like me to feed it information... or that they had some way to move around undetected as aliens. Of course, that meant they would need to be able to collect data on humans, too... because for them, we were the alien, even if this was our world. So could it show...
Me. There I was, onscreen, in my towel and all my mid-forties glory. Receding hairline and shot through with gray where it wasn't receding. I'd put on weight over the last several years, a result of spending a lot of time at a desk. My face was still mostly unlined, but the start of a few creases at the sides of my eyes and the corners of my mouth suggested that I didn't smile often enough and I'd end up looking like one of those grim, dour old men with downward turned wrinkles. I had more hair on my body than the last time I'd spent any serious time looking, and less muscle definition. A long journey from my early adult years in the military.
Strangely enough, the UI around the figure seemed even more active than it had been for Yoda. Was this a factor of what I knew? After all, I knew more or less everything there was to know about this aging guy and even the best resources were patchy on Yoda's long life because authors simply hadn't filled in all those details. Me? I wasn't an open book to the outside world, and I had few friends; even fewer who knew my secrets. But if the device was pulling it from my head, it knew everything I did... even the things I'd buried where I hoped no one would ever find them. Where I'd hoped they would be less of a distraction to living my life and just trying to survive it all.
On a whim, I added a lightsaber to my self-image in my head and imagined working through Yoda's Ataru form. Sure enough, the display added them. It was a little disorienting seeing something that looked so much like myself moving with odd grace and, occasionally, in ways that broke physics as I understood it... moments that, I imagined, took the use of the Force to achieve. My alien-tech generated self also looked more streamlined and agile, as if the implication of a version of me able to achieve that ability would be more fit.
Would it extrapolate further? I imagined the clock turned back, adding both strength and agility to what I had at my peak and then beyond, to what it would take to be a true master of martial arts and the various Jedi combat forms. The display cooperated, turning what had looked like me into what looked like an Olympic athlete version of someone closely related to me. He was huge while at the same time moving like a cat on the prowl, dangerous. It was a little frightening to see that much power in... well, in me. And, considering my temper and lack of tact when I believed I was in the right; it was probably just as well that this version of me didn't wander the streets. I might have fed him and grew him strong on Jedi fighting styles... but he had all the makings of a Sith, or at least a fallen Jedi.
Now, I'm sure fans of Star Wars would probably be protesting at this point that Sith aren't all bad and that being a fallen Jedi isn't a guarantee of being evil... and I get that, I know about the old lore and how there could be Sith who tap into the power of positive emotion and how Jedi don't have to be passive to be the calm at the eye of the storm. But this version of me? Full of strength and combat ability? This was a flawed human with plenty of darkness held in check by being 'normal' suddenly given superhuman ability. He didn't have the decades of training being a Jedi would have brought him. His life wasn't full of the challenges and losses and victories that would have built him up to that point. He was just me, given amazing power. He would fall. He would be a servant of the Dark side... and make the world suffer for it. And sure enough, the display followed my train of thought, revealing Darth Andrew. Terror of Earth. Drew the Destroyer.
But did he have to be? What if he had learned how to deal with my temper instead of just suppressing it as my parents had taught me? What if he had a connection to the Force that tied him into the people around him in ways that even my empathy didn't give that made him avoid his greatest strengths except in the defense of others? If he were intelligent and wise in ways I am not? The figure on the display looked back at me, no longer Sith, compassionate and powerful. The sort of man you wanted to impress and be able to look to for leadership when everything is going to hell. Was that... really in me? I mean... sure... it would take the existence of the Force and decades of training as a Jedi to approach it, but it was still based originally on me.
As I looked, and wondered... I realized that it was me. That for all his power, charisma and wisdom... he was still just as broken. His eyes still somewhat sad, his lips turned down in what would one day look like grim determination. He would claim it was because the work was never done, that he'd seen too much darkness in trying to help people. But it was that kernel that I hid out of sight of everyone else, that would eventually lead to his destruction... sadness, depression, and eventually self-destruction. He would bear it better than I did. Better than most, probably. He wouldn't just take his own life as so many did... but he would put his life at risk when he might not need to. Suicide by taking risks to help others... most people wouldn't even think of it as suicide. Messiah complex anyone?
I stepped back from the box, the display locking in place as my hand lifted off the touch panel. It was just as well that I was already in motion away from it because at that moment, it... opened. Not, a door swung open. Or slid out of the way. Or even dissolved back into the structure of it all. An entryway into the booth (yes, I was back to the phone booth analogy) was now there where a moment before there hadn't been one. I was reminded of the Clarke quote about sufficiently advanced science being seen as magic to a more primitive people. This might as well be magic...
A careful look inside revealed little enough... there was another small touch pad of the same sort as was used in combination with the display interface. Nothing else. I tossed a pillow from the bed inside. Nothing happened. It looked as though the only way to see what would happen, would be to step inside and use the touch panel. And that wasn't happening. No way in hell.
I walked away from the box, not just physically getting away from it but mentally moving on. Sure, I had an alien device in my hotel room that was waiting for me to use it and I was saying no. Call me crazy but this was either an incredibly elaborate hoax or the most incredible adventure ever to tempt humanity. That was an amazing possibility... epic proportions. Not only the answer to if we are alone in the universe but possibility connecting to, meeting, interacting with alien people. Finding technology and civilizations that were ancient and advanced when we were hunting mammoth with spears. Maybe when we were climbing out of the ooze.
But why me? I was no adventure hero. My laptop was out on the table and I had a string of words entered into the search engine and about to hit enter when I reconsidered. If this was the first time we had ever encountered anything like this, there wouldn't be anything on the internet about it. Why would anyone even speculate on the existence of something like this unless they knew it was around. And if someone knew? Why didn't 'everyone' know that aliens were really real... instead of it just being random conspiracies, conspiracies which had never to the best of my knowledge included details about alien phone booths falling from the sky.
Government... or wealthy organizations... would be covering it up, of course. Alien technology would be valuable, researched and reverse engineered for the purpose of advancing our own science. If someone were doing that... they would be watching the internet for inquiries about something that people wouldn't know about unless they encountered it.
That meant... I couldn't try to research this online. Not if I wanted to keep it and avoid being 'disappeared'. No... I had to work this out on my own and I only had a few days to do it, then I had to get back on the road. Which was a problem, because I had no idea how I was getting the phone booth out of the hotel room, let alone back into my rental car. Or... maybe I could do a couple quick searches from a coffee shop through a proxy service. As long as I didn't use my own hardware, and didn't stick around long afterwards, maybe I could avoid being traced and identified. That should work... in theory. But realistically? I had no idea what was possible. Especially considering these people would have alien tech to support them.
I sat down on the bed and killed the room lights, staring at the still display through the darkness as I lay down. It had been a long day, I had a stomach full of decent food. I should have been asleep in moments. Instead, my curiosity poked me over and over... demanding that I step into that booth and find out what it would lead to. I was awake for a long while but eventually, I dropped into the darkness and slept.
* * *
My morning came far more abrasively, as I bounced into alertness to the blaring sound of my cell phone's most obnoxious ring tone. It was, of course, the one for my agent... the closest thing I had to a regular boss.
“Morning?” I answered, after a long delay between silencing the ringer and working my voice into operating status.
“Drew, It's Chris. Morning. Did I wake you?”
“Yes Chris. You woke me. What the hell are you doing up this early?” I asked him, after a quick look at the clock. It might be pushing ten o'clock here, but his offices were in LA. It wasn't even seven on the left coast, yet.
“I'm always up this early. I might normally show you talent types the courtesy of calling during your sort of hours, but I had some news I wanted to get you soonish so you could make the most of it if you were interested. First, the McDaniels' project...”
“I'm still on schedule with that Chris, and they didn't seem too hard to work with...”
“Relax, Drew. They had their people look through what you gave them before you went East for the funeral. Not only are they happy, they're nuts about what you've given them. They said to tell you not to worry about the deadlines. They are thrilled with your ideas and would rather have you take care of business and come back to the project behind or even miss deadlines than to lose you because you can't meet a deadline they set just to make sure they had time to rework things if what they got was iffy...”
I sat up, surprised. That was certainly good news, “That's a relief. I was a bit worried about the finances of coming back here. Good to know I'm not spending next month eating Ramen.”
“Yes. About that. I don't think there's any Ramen in your immediate future, Drew. The McDaniels' thing was worth noting... but not why I called. I'm gonna just throw this at you. Your novel? I've got you a taker.”
“No. No... who?”
“You know who. We've only been prepping to land this deal for how long?”
“You're... you aren't just messing with me? They want to publish it?”
“Yes. Fifteen thousand for the advance, as soon as your signature is on this contract. It's in your email, along with a list of foundation revisions that they want you to consider. Plus standard royalty percentages, first right of refusal on your next two books under the same contract; no surprises. You'll want to look it over, I'm sure... but I don't see any reason not to sign it. It's almost exactly what we were shooting for.”
“Christ, Chris... that's...”
“I'm amazing, I know,” my agent assured me.
“It is...” I agreed, putting the emphasis back on the news. “And a huge relief. Is it... are the revisions going to kill the book?”
“No,” Chris mused. “A couple things I think they want just to open up some additional demographics. A couple cuts. I don't think its going to take you much to do them. You could have the book in the pipeline by Fall.”
“Ok. I guess... I'll finish up the McDaniels' thing and then focus on the novel. There's that grant work in late August for the researcher in Chicago.”
“Right, and there's the active translations app for ASL in September and you're still thinking about the lore and quest dialogue contract that is tentative for October.”
“Conversation for another time. As you said, you woke me. I haven't had coffee yet,” and as I looked across the room and saw the sun glint off the installed phone booth, which was currently running the default loading screen with its alien language scrolling up the display, I added “besides, I've found a bit of a conundrum here.”
“You might say. It's certainly not something I expected to find when I hopped to plane back to rural nowhere's land.”
“Now you have me curious. Did our Drew find himself a girl, finally?”
A pang shot through my heart. “No... “
“Sorry. I know that's a sore subject. You're a good guy, we want to see you happy.”
“I know it wasn't malicious, Chris. You know my luck. The girl I'm looking for isn't looking for me.”
“Nonsense. You're not a bad looking guy. You know I could introduce you to a great guy I know...”
“He has family money. Goes to all the best parties. He'll treat you right...”
“Chris, I don't need a sugar-daddy.”
“Have it your way. Finish up your business back East, get this McDaniels project done and then get back here and make us lots and lots of money. The sooner you get to the bestseller's list, the faster I can sell your movie rights for lots and lots of dollars.”
I had to laugh. Chris was just the right balance of work and lunacy... and was an incredibly motivated agent. He didn't sit around the office waiting for his percentages to roll in, he was out there every day. I wasn't sure how many other people he represented, but there were days that I would swear he spent more than twenty four hours selling me. If he did that for all his people, he had to be superhuman. A Timelord, maybe?
“Thanks, Chris. I'll get the contract back to you before the end of the day. It won't take long to wrap things up for Dad's estate... I think he spent half the time since granddad's death getting his own affairs in order. Probably the only time in his life that he actually thought about how his life and its absence would affect anyone else. Bit of a kick in the pants that it means its easy to bring it all to a close.”
The idea sobered the agent, “That's... a bit dark, Drew. You sure you're alright? I know I could find someone to pop around and spend a couple days with you there.”
“I'll be alright. Thanks though. I've got this puzzle to solve and the novel to look forward to. That'll keep me from dwelling on the dark stuff too much.”
The line sat quiet for a moment, then “Alright. But call me if that changes. I can get someone there in a couple hours. Even if I have to hire a helicopter to fly them in to you.”
“Bye Chris. I'll give you a ring if there's anything I don't get or agree with in the contract.”
The line went dead.
I wasn't going to get anything else done with this thing sitting here drawing my attention all day. Time to man up. We talked about risk and reward balances all the time in working with games... here was my chance to go for the big money in real life. If I were going to be talking to aliens, I needed to make a good impression. What do you wear the first time you encounter representatives from an ancient and powerful civilization when they know you are so far beneath them that...
No. I couldn't go into this like that. I'd wear something reasonably nice, but casual. Our styles probably wouldn't mean anything, it would be more important that what I wore looked good on me. That meant the suit I wore for Dad's funeral was out... it was appropriate for the occasion, but it was distinctly not designed to make me look good. Stuffy. Restrained. But not good. For just the briefest moment, I considered finding a kilt and ghillie shirt... but then shook that off.
I settled on a pair of black jeans and a forest green button down shirt and my engineers boots. Not ideal, but comfortable and familiar and it was a look that suited me. If I were going to be meeting a diplomat on Earth, it would be the completely wrong thing to wear... but with the possibility of ending up on an adventure? I could do far worse. Then I had a bit of inspiration. I may not be great with languages, but I could be prepared to meet with someone who was.
I pulled up my favorite eBook store and quickly downloaded an English language primer, a dictionary, and several translation books for getting to English from Latin, Greek, and a couple more modern languages. Following another quick inspiration, I purchased textbooks for math and the basic sciences, added a couple 'how things work' books, and called it good. I couldn't be certain any given book would be especially helpful if I had to engineer myself out of a situation but they would be the sort of things that would give me common ground to work out a language if I had to. Or for someone else with better tech to figure out mine.
While I waited for my phone to download everything locally, I read through the contract that Chris had sent me. Very standard for a first time author, which wasn't really my situation; I'd published plenty... just not as a novelist in the sci-fi genre. That meant I got handled with the same kid gloves as all the other new writers. For now. I affixed my signature to the contract and returned it to Chris. As he'd said, no surprises. Higher percentages would have been nice, but wouldn't matter if the book actually took off. A million copies was a lot of money whether you got 7% or 9% per paperback. The real money would be in the TV or movie rights, anyway.
Preparations complete, I stepped back up to the booth and touched the red crystal interface. The display came to life, still showing the final Jedi version of me. I focused on letting it reset, to return to being a copy of me as I was currently dressed. The interface complied. I lifted my hand off the panel, the screen froze and the door was open. If I were a hero in a novel, I would say something witty or dramatic at this point. If it were a movie, I'd make a comment that was funny and came back to haunt me later in the film.
Being me, I took a deep breath... and stepped inside.
Nothing happened immediately. Which at least suggested that it wasn't a trap of some sort. But the door was still open and it was unlikely that providing a small shelter were its only purpose. The technology on its outside wasn't really the sort for that purpose. That meant, I had to activate it from in here. I reached up and touched the panel.
The door instantly reappeared, and my mild claustrophobia screamed in the back of my head that I was trapped in a coffin. That the device on the outside was a way of showing who had been put in the coffin before enclosing it in some sort of large tomb. I touched the panel again, and the door reappeared allowing me to explode out of the containment.
With a moment for panic to recede, I realized that flaw in my logic. If this were a coffin, why would the option to close it be on the inside? So... what was it, then? I admittedly hadn't stayed inside it long, so there might not have been a chance for it to make a connection to whoever it was meant to call... but why wouldn't there be a visual display inside? With that level of info on the outside, why was there nothing shown inside?
I ducked into the bathroom to splash some water on my face. Nothing like a little panic to jump start the system. As I patted my face try, something seemed out of place. It took me a minute to put my finger on it... or rather, to put my finger on where it had been. A scar below my lip I'd had for most of my life, from going head over teakettle on a rocking horse and biting through it when I landed... was gone. Now, I wasn't a thrill seeker or anything of the sort, but growing up in the country and just generally living for forty some years; you accumulate some injuries. And even if they are minor, most of them leave behind some sort of sign. The smallpox mark from the vaccination in bootcamp. The bike spill that tore up both my knees. Discolored spots from bug bites a year or two old that still hadn't synced back up with the tan around them. All gone.
I went back to the box and took a closer look at the image. It was hard to say whether the differences were there as well or not. But as I looked, I realized it wasn't exactly me. Oh, it was... in all the significant ways. I'd been looking to make a good impression though. So the image in the display was me... cleaned up. The clothing was a bit more stylishly cut and I wore it a bit better, a result of a tighter stomach and less flab on arms and legs. I hadn't noticed, not relative to the Jedi version of myself that had been on the screen before it... but, more importantly, it wasn't just the display image that was improved over the man that had woken up in this room. So was I.
Now... the question was, was it just a medical device for fixing injuries and improving one's health? Or, as I was starting to suspect; was this how the aliens moved among us? Looking like us... like anyone displayed on that screen?
I put my hand back on the panel, and called back to mind my final Jedi image, careful to think through all the things I had done to move him away from my fallen Jedi or Sith version... and then opened the device.
This time, when I activated the box; I thought I could see the moment when it happened and I changed. The door reopened and I stepped out, feeling really good. I wasn't so old as to spend every day in pain, but I did have aches in my back and knees that were just part of the package. I knew how to move to minimize their presence and I knew how to avoid adding more pain by being foolish and pushing outside of my capabilities.
Those aches and limitations were gone. I knew without doubt that I could walk into any city on the planet and start free running without even scouting out a path and still have no problem. Something did feel... wrong... though. Like there was something missing in my surroundings that instinct told me should be there... should be everywhere.
I reached out to a pen lying on the table by the window, to draw it to me. The link of the Force moving through me and the pen that I expected to feel... wasn't there. That made sense, I guess. The Star Wars universe had the Force and whether that were an indescribable quantum level energy or a sort of omni-present living organic nanotechnology, it wasn't a part of this universe. It might be possible to create such a thing, but did I have the right to make that decision for the whole of the universe? Not only would it potentially spread beyond our planet, affecting other civilizations; but it would open up the possibility for the same sort of Dark Side monsters that I was worried I might become myself.
But, if I couldn't use the Force without also creating the Force so it could be used; that didn't prevent me from changing ME to be able to do the same sort of thing that Force users achieved through the Force, did it? I would need to use caution, and wisdom, to ensure that I kept myself off that path to darkness... but maybe without the active temptations of the Dark Side itself, I wouldn't fall quite so easily.
Then, my hand fell on the device hanging at my belt. It slid free easily into my hand and with a smooth gesture, I triggered it into life. The hiss as the lightsaber blazed into blue-white radiance and then dimmed into a persistent resonating hum staggered me. I was holding a working lightsaber. A sword hilt using powerful crystals aligned in a precision fashion that could generate a bar of plasma and a magnetic containment field to hold it in blade shape. I wanted nothing more than to walk through the Ataru form... or Makashi. Instead, I shut down the blade and tossed it on the bed. As amazing as it was, the lightsaber was a deadly weapon and a hotel room is not the place to practice with one.
Still, there were a few things that I could do. I flipped in place, caught myself in a one handed handstand for a moment, then pushed the rest of the way around to land perfectly balanced on my sandals. Yes, sandals... to go with the Jedi robes I was wearing on top of an extremely muscular and agile body.
It was amazing to consider how much the box had changed me and that it had simultaneously put together a working lightsaber. If it could do that, could it also have changed me into Yoda? ET.... Cthulhu? Certainly my Sith self would have been possible, but he would have been as without the Force as I am... but, if I had chosen to go that route, would my personality have changed with it? Would I, instead of considering the idea of introducing the Force into our universe as unwise or even dangerous, have immediately gone about it as a step towards my ultimate goals? I suspected that I would have done just that.
And then a quiet voice, a long buried and hidden voice, spoke in my mind that maybe... if an alien could take any form that the device could show as a means of walking unnoticed through a civilization and that it could work for humans... then maybe... just maybe...
I froze. The body I currently wore... the one I knew that for all its power and charisma was still me because of that hint of sadness in its eyes... I knew I had to give it up. Even without the Force to draw it down, I knew eventually my unhappiness would sour it. But I shook as I understood the implications of those words... just because I couldn't be this... it didn't mean I had to return to being the man who had woken up in this room. I could fix that small source of darkness and unhappiness. Did I dare?
My hand was on the interface panel before I even realized that I had crossed the room to the device again. The image on the display shrank down, became thin and lithe, curved in ways that no man of Earth would fail to recognize. Attractively female, but not overly so. Breasts and hips large and wide enough to avoid being called boyish but not a walking invitation to sex with every ignorant putz on the planet. Pale skin, copper hair, green eyes. Clear Irish traits but enough variation around the eyes and mouth to suggest other influences. Strong beneath the surface, flexible and fast both in motion and reflexes. I wouldn't have a lifetime of experience keeping me from putting myself in situations where I might be vulnerable, so I needed to be sure I wasn't vulnerable.
Strangely, as I made her stronger there wasn't really a visible change to appearance. I kept waiting for extra musculature to appear and then I could pull her back... but evidently that point was clear enough in my mind that the settings had already done what I wanted, gone as strong as possible without moving from athletic to muscular. Healthy... extremely so. I didn't want to be fragile, I wanted to finally live. She was in jeans and a long peasant blouse. There was a twinkle in her eye, filling that spot where I'd always found sadness.
And then I was inside the booth. My hand on the panel... like I was on autopilot. I had wanted this all of my life and I was now seconds away from getting it. Really being her. Not just going through hormone treatments and surgeries and hoping to have some semblance of womanhood and hoping to be able to pass. Actually being a woman. Having periods. Being treated like a second class citizen and a sex object and fighting to bring that to an end. Getting pregnant. Giving birth. Living life... really a woman.
Any moment now, I was going to wake up. I would still be... him. Chris would call and he would tell me that the McDaniels group was pressing for more changes. That the novel had been rejected. And the shiny box would be a piece of junk that fell off an airplane. That was how life really worked. Still... if the dream is going to keep running, let's make the best of it.
The door closed. Again, I was aware of the moment of change... my perspective dropped as I lost more than half a foot of height. The door opened.
(To Be Continued)