Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Remy’s Town
by Megan Neumann

by Andrew Hook

Her Robot Babies
by Brent Knowles

Beyond the Reach of Proof
by Seth W. Kennedy

Here Is a Fighter
by Eric Del Carlo

Invasive Species
by Kurt Heinrich Hyatt

Deciphering an ET Opening Screen
by Marilyn K. Martin

I Once Was Lost
by Edward Morris

by Melanie Rees

Respect of Headwaiters
by Tais Teng

Toy Soldier
by Leon Chan


A Case Against Saucers
by John McCormick

Atomic Light Bulbs
by Popular Mechanics




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips



Deciphering an ET Opening Screen

By Marilyn K. Martin

IT WAS A CAVERNOUS ROOM in an old Air Force jet hangar. There was no ceiling, just metal beams and pipes in the dark reaches beyond the hangdown lights on their forty-foot wires. And a labyrinth of huge flexible tubing that shot air-conditioner cool air down on the thirty, mostly young people. They were each seated at a computer terminal around a large circular desk, each with a number emblazoned on the computer, desk and chair.

In the center of the circle stood a raised plywood platform with one computer and one Air Force officer in his dark blue uniform. He sported a graying, military-short haircut above a concerned face that seemed permanently stuck on “anxious” —beady, darting eyes surrounded by wrinkles and dark circles from too many sleepless nights.

“I am Major Sam Sisselfort, spelled just like it sounds,” he joked, although only a few chuckles answered and his taut, forced smile quickly dropped back to his grimmer-than-grim facial countenance. “I am in charge of the Air Force’s Extra-terrestrial Computronics Division. Yes?”

An arm sticking out of a teeshirt that read “Virtual Hero Keyboards—Hit F10 for Superman” slowly lowered, and a twenty-something male with shaggy hair straightened in his chair to call out “I thought the Navy was put in charge of all the Alien Tech in the last century? After Roswell?” A loud murmur of multiple voices concurred. Major Sisselfort then realized that he was dealing with a crowd of Internet Surfers who were reasonably well informed about ETs. Bummer.

“That’s correct, Mr. Kirkland,” he nodded with a quick smile, hoping he’d read the felt-tip pen nametag correctly. “But as of 2015, the Navy has been up to their eyeballs monitoring all the ET proxy wars being fought on and over Earth. So their mission has morphed into one of military law enforcement, and they have handed off their Alien Computronics to us in the Air Force. Especially because our mission has morphed too, and most of our aircraft are now space-planes that stay in orbit for years, protecting our satellites and directing beam-fire down on GHS, or global hotspots.”

More murmurs now, as slouched bodies in jeans and teeshirts commented quickly to neighbors, most hands now resting on the black desks beside blinking keyboards on Stand-By. Major Sisselfort hoped that his succinct honesty had gained a few points with these prize hackers. They were well-known for “going rogue” in a heartbeat if they felt they were being ridiculed or treated condescendingly. Or if—God Forbid—they decided they were working for the wrong side, or “DV-ized,” taken from a notorious villain in a science fiction movie franchise started in the last century.

“OK, no more questions? Good. Then let’s get started,” continued Major Sisselfort briskly, a mini-mic on his collar feeding his voice into the audio of all the surrounding thirty computer monitors, which were currently Off. “At 0300 hours yesterday morning the Navy found an abandoned—not crashed—ET-alien disk craft wedged among some cliff rocks in Yosemite Park in California.”

The Major paused to check the faces over the monitors in the large circle below him. Despite their studied nonchalant body language, their eyes were focused keenly on him and his every move. Great! he thought. He just had to remember Game Theory and make sure what he was about to say stayed entertaining and dramatic, with only intended—and not clumsily unintentional—humor.

“The Navy thinks they know the basic species the craft belongs to, but their records are very thin on the point of origin and language. There was no sign of the ETs that flew and parked that craft, so the Navy is now bogged down in trying to trace that specific sub-species.”

“Anything caught on radar?” called out a male voice. That seemed to indicate these young hackers were getting increasingly interested in this project.

“Yes, some,” answered Major Sisselfort. “Radar records revealed its approach, then stopped when it lowered into Yosemite. But even satellite surveillance didn’t show what happened to the ETs who parked it and left. Nor was any other pick-up craft nor vortex opening detected. They just vanished. But we are more concerned with the craft they left behind.

“And this is the crux of why you are here: All that is On in this ET-disk is their computer, with a very strange and baffling opening screen embedded in one wall,” continued the Major. “The main concern is that it might be in Countdown Mode, especially because the craft was tightly wedged amid some rocks, and the operators have disappeared.”

“Maybe it isn’t directed at us, but set to lure in one of their enemies who are also on Earth,” called out a young female voice.

“Maybe,” concurred the Major. “But we can’t be sure. Especially as there are some flickering bits in motion in the lower left corner of the screen. In ET Computronics, this is usually a time-tending function rather than messaging: the constant motion of the bits conveys a sense or urgency and a need for some kind of action.” More hackers unfolded their arms now, as others exchanged raised-eyebrow glances with neighbors, all wondering if everyone just felt the same shift of gravitas in their circle of computers.

“We don’t know if this abandoned craft’s propulsion system could be used for an explosion or an EM blast,” added Major Sisselfort. “But we don’t want to ignore it and take a chance. And the only clue or key to solving this seems to be the deliberately left On opening computer screen.” More murmurs of agreement, as bodies straightened in chairs, and damp palms wiped on jeans. They were all in Ready Mode, now hanging on his every word. Which pleased Major Sisselfort enormously.

“So I’m sorry you got rousted out of bed yesterday to be flown here,” the Major continued in grave tones. “But this is a serious situation. National security—not to mention the fate of California—might hang in the balance. Although conscripted, you will be paid for your vital service.”

“Game on!” called out a male voice, to a loud chorus of agreement. Suddenly there were tapping sounds everywhere, quickly followed by soft swearing which echoed around the hangar as fingers now pounded on Start buttons on their computers which proved to be non-responsive.

“I control all your computers from up here,” Major Sisselfort announced, stepping back to tap a few keys on his own keyboard. Suddenly a replica of the ET screen flashed onto all thirty computer monitors in the circle. “And here’s a hi-def replica of that ET screen, on a ten minute time-loop.”

Young faces suddenly glowed in eerie colors, their expressions surprised but subdued as practiced eyes flicked over the strange alien screen. “I and every Air Force expert in ET Computronics, and even some hired hackers from several Intel agencies, have spent hours upon hours trying to decipher this screen since 0400 hours yesterday morning. We all came up with a big bunch of nada,” announced the Major gravely, before walking to the edge of the dais.

“Each and every one of you are considered genius-class computer programmers. You have been temporarily reassigned from the best software and hardware companies, server companies, meta-data tracking companies, website designers and even video game companies,” Major Sisselfort continued. “And this will be a team effort. We are working against the clock. So if you find anything significant, highlight or enlarge that screen portion, then hit that Alert button at the top of your keyboards. I have a similar button on my computer that sends your discovery to all the other monitors in this circle, delivered in thumbnail-view to a corner of the screens.”

The Major paused to look down and gather his thoughts. Then he looked up. “I’m well aware we are asking you to do the impossible, ladies and gentlemen. But remember: Heroes aren’t born, they only emerge in a crisis when they can somehow find a way to turn the impossible into the possible. So if you have even one molecule in you that wants to prevent a global disaster, or just one Superhero brain cell that wants to save innocent lives ... Then, please—make us proud!”

Fifteen minutes later, the thirty hackers in the circle of computers were hard at work on their own monitors. The ET opening screen they were working with consisted of a jumble of geometric shapes, dominated by large circles diagonally from each other, at the upper left and lower right of the screen. Between the stationary circles in the center of the screen was a morphing and stretching outline of a trapezoid. The parallel bases swapped off with the legs every few seconds, so that the parallel lines were on top and bottom one second, then both sides the next, and so on.

Small triangles filled up the rest of the screen, some stationary, some circling in one area, and others floating randomly all over the screen. In the lower left corner of the screen, strange figures were in constant, seemingly random motion. In the background, all the colors of the visible light spectrum rotated past, red to purple then back down, purple to indigo blue through red, then back up again.

Frowning faces stared intently at the strange, otherworldly images, fingers tapping buttons for Closeups of one portion or the other. Reverse Views were even being employed, as well as Focus Options and Screen Shrink/Expand/ Stretch. Major Sisselfort was frowning as he nervously paced the small plywood dais, waiting for the loud tone-sound Alert announcing that something significant had been discovered.

“Uh, Sir?” came a young male voice suddenly, and the Major turned to see a raised hand lowering. “Can I get a print-out of this screen?”

Heads jerked up as the Major tried to mentally evaluate the significance of this first maybe-breakthrough. “Sure. How many copies do you want?” he asked calmly, turning toward his own keyboard.

“About ... six,” answered the young man, squinting as he did some quick calculations in his head. “I need a random sequence of six print-outs, snapped off your screen in three second intervals.”

A minute later, the Major was outside the large circle of computers and standing beside the computer station of a young man named “Puntstain,” according to his nametag. The Major had just handed Mr. Puntstain a half dozen hi-res color copies of the ET screen, which the hacker had quickly numbered one through six. Then Mr. Puntstain started folding the sheets this way and that, before comparing the oddly folded papers side by side. All the other hackers nearby were suddenly bobbing heads, watching what was going on at No. 18, Puntstain’s computer terminal.

Major Sisselfort hit the Everyone Audio button on Puntstain’s monitor, so everyone else in the circle could hear what was going on. “Please explain what you are looking for in these folded print-outs,” requested the Major clearly. He also looked behind him, motioning airmen in blue one-piece flight suits and uniform hats to emerge out of the shadows and stand closer to the black ring of computers and hackers. Resuming their parade rest stance, they were Security for the genius-hackers. They also kept an eye open for any unauthorized devices that might steal data off the ET screen.

“Well, reading about the interior electronics of ET craft is a hobby of mine,” Mr. Puntstain answered. “And one thing I noticed about a lot of on-board ET computer screens, whether hardware or virtual, is that their default mode opening screen usually has a Focal Point, which can sometimes only be detected through an understanding of Mirror Flips.”

He held up the six copies, folded in seemingly nonsensical fashion, above his monitor for the other hackers to see. “That’s what I’m doing with these paper copies, folding them in different configurations to detect any Mirror Flips that could lead me to the screen’s focal point.”

“Why do they need a focal point on their opening screen?” asked a young woman seated beside Puntstain. Her name tag read “Gerandi.“ She wore a thin Giggle eyeglass band, still sparkling even though it was now pushed up onto the top of her head. She had also twisted her long, light brown hair, and secured that, too, on top of her head with a pen.

“’Cause my theory is that ETs have such advanced, lightning-fast electronics and propulsion,” explained Puntstain to her, “that they have to make nanosecond decisions. Especially flying around in space, where they might accidentally get sucked into an opening vortex, or a time hiccup that could send them into the past or future.

“Or on Earth, flying around an inhabited orb amid enemy ETs or Earth militaries with missile batteries who may try and shoot them down,” continued Puntstain. “So they need to access important data super-fast, not scroll through icons and screens like we do. And a focal point on their opening screen allows them to access that important data, possibly arranged as spokes radiating outward from that focal point.”

“Amazing!” admitted Gerandi with a smile. “Did you submit a paper on that, or anything?”

Puntstain offered Gerandi a smile and a shrug, over a quick blush. “I ... tried to write an e-book on my theory, but it kept getting deleted as Unallowed Tech Release—Redirected to AF. But I did get $3,000 sent to my bank account as EOL—Estimation of Loss.”

“And that’s exactly why you’re here, Mr. Puntstain,” prodded Major Sisselfort. “So let’s get back to your paper folding. Can you explain what kind of data might be surrounding that theoretical focal point?”

Puntstain shuffled his folded copies and side-by-side comparisons. “No one’s exactly sure how each ET species arranges their spoke-data, and that’s probably their own protected, high-tech secret. It may be most needed functions in descending order, in a clockwise or counterclockwise arrangement. Or it may be arranged alphabetically or by code. Hey! I think I got something!”

Major Sisselfort leaned over, a hand on the black desk of No. 18, staring down at Puntstain’s screen copies. Sheets numbered one, three, four, and six were folded oddly and now side-by-side. “Explain,” was all the Major said.

Puntstain pointed at each folded paper. “Sheets one and three show the Mirror Flip. See? This circle in sheet one is my baseline, with this smaller triangle starting on the left with the darker version of the background color inside the left half of that circle. By sheet three, the small triangle is reversed and on the right side, and the darker color is now in the right half of the same circle.”

There was a blast of echoing noise as chairs scrapped concrete and many shoes thumped toward computer No. 18. The Major backed away to let the other hackers crowd in to see Puntstain’s folded papers, as he again explained his Mirror Flip discovery.

Five minutes later, everyone was back at their own computers, fully engaged and energized. Back on the dais, Major Sisselfort had those six folded screen-shots he’d printed out for Puntstain shown as thumbnail views along the top of his and all the other computer screens. If the cursor was clicked on the first thumbnail, the sequence would slowly play out the Mirror Flip in animation.

The Major nervously looked out over the thirty hackers at the circle of computers. “Show of hands: How many are working on Puntstain’s theory?” he called out. He counted about nineteen hands, two-thirds of the group. He smiled tensely. “Excellent! Anyone thinks they have another piece to Puntstain’s theory, or you find something totally unrelated but significant, hit that Alert button.”

Doooong! suddenly rang loudly. Major Sisselfort looked out as one of the Security Airmen standing in the wider circle behind the group raised his head and used fingers on both hands to silently signal the number seven. This was the number of the computer in front of him, where that hacker had just hit the Alert button. “What have you got, computer No. 7?” the Major called out.

A chubby young man with an explosion of dark curls that hadn’t met up with a comb or brush in awhile, raised his hand. “I think I just found the focal point,” he called out, as all heads suddenly popped up and turned in his direction, some standing up to locate him in the circle. “I applied Fulcrum Theory, and found Puntstain’s focal point in the middle of the upper half of the screen.”

A minute later Major Sisselfort had the discovered focal point marked on all the monitor screens, as a pulsating dot. “Good work, folks!” the Major announced, straightening from his own computer on the dais. “Keep it up. Let’s see if we can unravel the spokes of data, and how it all relates to those time-tending bits in the lower corner of the screen.”

As the thirty were again hunched intently over their keyboards, the Major thumped down plywood stairs from the dais and walked briskly out of the circle. He headed to a secure, official phone attached to a huge I-beam at the side of the hangar. After a series of coded responses and transfer clicks, someone picked up the other end. “Major Sisselfort here, with our hangar hackers,” he stated, by way of a greeting. “We’re making progress, I think, but I’d like an on-site report.”

The Naval officer on the other end of the secure video line was the formidable Commander Pete Dippler, head of the pinnacle of American Spec Ops, the Delta Gold Team that investigated and recovered crashed ET-craft anywhere in the world. Dressed in civilian jeans and shirt, only a small tattoo on one wrist identified him—and it was in code.

“Hey, Sam,” the Commander replied tensely, staring at the ET-disk wedged into a crevice high in a Yosemite granite outcrop, about ten meters away. It was a sunny but cool day. The Gold Team in civilian clothes, scruffy hair, and beards milled around. They chain smoked and jumped at every noise as they waited.

They huddled on a rough patch of solid rock overlooking the Yosemite Valley and its Giant Sequoias and many streams. The roads glittered with bumper to bumper vehicles that snaked throughout the park. Car horns honked in frustration. Transported by helicopter, camo tents and other gear were spread out nearby, with equipment on tripods and a few armed guards around the wedged disk.

“Glad you called,” Commander Dippler said. “We’ve had some new developments.” He was sitting on a small granite shelf, the opened metal case of a rugged-satellite-videophone in front of him. He looked around quickly, then hit the Electronic Fog button inside the phone case. A small wavering energy field from the case now enveloped the Commander’s head so no one could overhear or see what he was about to say.

“The Pentagon’s ordered me not to tell anyone, but frick ’em—you need to know this,” Commander Dippler continued brusquely. “The disk is now emitting a low-level hum, and we can’t isolate a source, either inside or outside. Also, on that computer screen inside the disk, those little flickering bits in the lower left of the screen are the only things now rotating through the colors of the visible light spectrum,” he said into his phone. “The rest of the screen continues the same movement with those geometric shapes, but against a background that flashed to white about an hour ago—and is now slowly turning gray.”

“We need some answers, Sam!” said the Commander urgently. “If this ET screen continues to darken, we’ll have nothing left to work with. I’ll have to order a laser strike on this disk just as a precaution. And there are too many tourists around to keep a lid on the media. So for God’s Sake, Sam, get me some answers!”

Major Sisselfort’s hand against the phone in the distant hangar went white from terror. His jaw clenched and unclenched. This was not what he’d wanted to find out. “I hear you, Pete. And I understand that we are on the clock. I’ll do what I can on this end, promise.”

All thirty screens in the hanger circle of computers suddenly flickered and went black. The hackers gasped and swore, all eyes jerking up to Major Sisselfort who had returned to the dais, his monitor screen blank as well. He hurriedly hit keys on his own keyboard. Suddenly his screen flickered to life, and a split-second later, so did all the rest of the thirty monitors in the circle.

“This is a new ten-minute loop, taken from the craft in Yosemite just a short while ago,” announced the Major, after straightening and turning. “The background color is now gray, and continues darkening. So it looks now like we do have a countdown scenario, possibly leading to a totally unknown end event. It’s calculated to happen around midnight, when the ET craft screen is projected to reach black.”

The Major glanced at his watch and pointed to the side. “Let’s take a five-minute break. Or at least get up and have some snacks and drinks off that long table over there. We’ve got a long afternoon and probably a long night as well, ladies and gentlemen. Let’s try hard to not let Yosemite explode and unseal the San Andreas fault again.”

Another thirty minutes passed, then doooong! Major Sisselfort spun around on the dais, looking out. As a Security Airman held up ten and then nine fingers, for computer No. 19, the Major saw that it was the young woman, Gerandi, seated beside the same Puntstain who had discovered the Mirror Flip. Only now she was moving her chair back, her face puzzled and a little fearful, as some kind of energy seemed to be projecting outward from her monitor.

“I think I’ve discovered something significant, Sir,” she was saying while staring at her monitor. A half-dozen Security Airmen rushed to line up behind her, their expressions more of sheer surprise than alarm. Major Sisselfort was beside her in seconds, as Puntstain stood on her other side, both staring at her screen with startled faces.

Bulging from the center of Gerandi’s monitor screen was a filmy energy about six centimeters in diameter, in the shape of the screen’s central trapezoid. The parallel bases were locked as top and bottom, the side legs continuing to morph in and out. Comments like “Look at that! She’s got something coming out of her frickin’ screen!” zipped around the circle of thirty hackers. Then the sounds again of chairs scrapping on concrete, followed by the same padded thunder of footsteps now racing to computer No. 19.

“What exactly did you do?” asked Puntstain, staring at the filmy trapezoid shape extending about a foot out from Gerandi’s screen.

“I was doing some Random GeoMath,” she replied, standing up as a Security Airman whisked her chair out of the way. “You know, like you are supposed to try with all extraterrestrial messages, since they use a lot of universal math instead of language for communication.”

“Where are your calculations?” asked a frowning Major Sisselfort, looking around her keyboard and desk.

“I was doing it mostly in my head, Sir,” she shrugged. “I was using the computer’s Protractor tool to measure the inner corner angles on the central trapezoid, then I timed the trapezoid’s morph time with the Stopwatch tool. I was trying to find a way to unlock the spokes around that focal point, which sits on top of the trapezoid. So I started messing around with the numbers I had, from the angles and morph-time. I kept getting multiples of three.

“So then I counted all these little triangles around the screen, even these little bits in chaotic motion in the lower left corner. I realized that those bits were triangles too, just bending, curling, and twisting so they don’t look like triangles until you straighten them out,” Miss Gerandi went on, as a crowd of bodies pressed in around her, listening closely. “So I added up all these triangles, and the totals were multiples of three, too. So then I drew a triangle with a circle inside on the screen—”

“What?” exclaimed Major Sisselfort. “How? These aren’t touchscreens ... we couldn’t afford touchscreens on such short notice.”

“They’re not?” Gerandi shrugged and pointed at the projecting image of the trapezoid. “Well, then that ET screen somehow responded to my touch. ’Cause as soon as I used my finger to draw a large triangle with a circle inside it on the screen glass, the trapezoid shape suddenly broke through those shapes and ... and popped out. So now I’ve got this projection thing.”

“Sir?” called out a Security Airman from the opposite side of the circle. He stood before an unattended computer, frowning. “Got a low hum coming from this station. Although the monitor screen looks the same.”

“Stay right there!” ordered the Major. “I’ll be over in a ... Puntstain? Do you know what you’re doing?” he asked urgently, as he watched young Puntstain now reaching his fingers into the projected energy from the monitor.

“Probably not,” responded Puntstain, fingers still wiggling in the energy projection. “But I took a class at Computer Camp one summer, called Going Rogue with Limited Information. And it was suggested that just ... doing something intuitive or unexpected can sometimes be a good bridge to break through an impasse.” Then he pulled his fingers out of the energy projection, and studied them. “No pain or numbness, just a tingling sensation. And no plasma discharge or striation markings. So far so good.”

“That’s an interesting idea,” Gerandi murmured, stepping toward her computer again.

The Major had turned to address the closest Security Airman. “Oh, for ... Get a medical corpsman in here, just in case. And find some portable radiation and electromagnetic detectors.”

The Major looked back in time to see that Gerandi was using the palm of her splayed right hand to press against the energy projection. The screen was now emitting the strange, raspy tone of a stiff breeze, as the projection energy lost its trapezoidal shape to flatten and spread out all over the screen, under the pressure of her hand.

When it was just a one-centimeter filmy overlay on the screen, Gerandi retracted her hand, and everyone watched the small bendable triangles suddenly zip out of the lower left corner and into the overlay covering the whole screen. Then the bits zoomed to take up positions equidistant from each other, in nine rows, each with nine small triangles.

The other hackers were suddenly bumping fists and laughing, declaring that this was the absolutely coolest thing they’d ever seen in their entire lives! But having just seen the countdown bits rush to take up a fence-position all over the screen, Major Sisselfort wasn’t so sure about that.

He quickly straightened, his face frozen. “Don’t touch anything else!” he ordered, pulling Gerandi away from the monitor, while elbowing young Puntstain away as well. “Everyone back away from this computer. Now!” He motioned to several Security Airmen to take up guard positions by the No. 19 computer, their backs to the monitor. “No one touches this computer or screen, or even gets close to it. Understand?”

The hackers all backed away, no longer in a celebratory mood, their faces unsure around wide eyes. “I’ve got to call the site in Yosemite with that ET-craft,” Major Sisselfort explained. “I want to make sure you didn’t accidentally trigger something in the craft, playing around with that energy projection.”

“Sir? Uh, Sir?” called out several Security Airmen urgently, standing before deserted computers far away from No. 19. “Oh, shoot!” cried out several hackers as they stared. Amid startled gasps, the hackers started backing away from the computer circle, their faces pale with shock.

Major Sisselfort spun around—and froze. Inside the circular desk of computers, and in front of his dais, three unknown entities were coalescing. There seemed to be some watery-distortion energy between computer No. 19 and the computer on the opposite side of the circle. It was the same computer which the Security Airman had just reported emitting a humming sound. The nearly invisible energy stream between the computers split and encircled three extraterrestrials.

They were upright bipeds about five feet tall, with the mottled green skin of an amphibian, hairless, and with webbing between the six-fingered hands and toes of their exposed feet. They had large eyes with multiple lids, like all Amphibianoids, with mere slits for a nose, mouth and ears that could be pinched closed if they entered water. They all wore a glowing protective energy film over their one-piece green uniforms, with utility belts visible. Hand weapons were always presumed to be in the possession of unknown ETs. Always.

Suddenly there were running footsteps around the Major, as the Security Airmen took up positions within the circle, roughly pushing away the few hackers walking closer to see the ETs better. Each Airman had drawn a handgun, and leveled it now on the ETs inside the circle. This was the standard response to “unauthorized intruders” in a secure site, especially one with an ultra-secret mission.

“Don’t fire without my order!” called out Major Sisselfort loudly, then focused on the ETs inside the circle. “Do you speak English? Or do you have a translator?” he questioned.

The one ET in front reached down to turn a dial on an oval attachment on his utility belt. “I can speak for all of us,” came a mechanical voice. “You seem alarmed to see us,” the voice continued. “So I must explain. We have hidden flying disks on many worlds, displaying our puzzle screen, while we wait in a parallel dimension. It is a test, to see if a planet has reached a high enough technological achievement to be worthy of our contact and interaction.”

The Amphibianoid turned to look left then right, taking in the armed Security Airmen pointing guns, as well as the terrified young hackers meters to the rear, some beginning to cry with terror. “I am pleased to announce that you have passed our test by solving our puzzle screen.” The ET then addressed the Major. “But by the projectile weapons pointed at us, and all your elevated heart rates indicating extreme fear, I can tell that you are not socially ready to interact with us as equals.”

“No, wait!” called out Major Sisselfort. “I would be happy to talk with you, answer your questions, whatever,” he pleaded loudly. “We were just ... startled to see you appear like this. We thought we were only going to be working on solving your ... puzzle screen. And our young computer programmers back there have never been Alien-Acclimated, so of course they’re scared. Please, don’t reject us as unworthy of interacting with you.”

Major Sisselfort then turned to the Security Airmen around the circle with their handguns trained on the ETs. “Starting with computer No. 1, I want every other Security Airman to holster his sidearm and step back three paces. That’s an order. Now!” As the Airmen straightened and looked around, every other one started holstering their handgun and backing away.

The Major turned his attention to the Amphibianoids in the center. “I’ve just ordered half of our Security Team to put away their sidearms and step back. This is a gesture of faith that you have no intention to harm us,” the Major explained. “So, please, don’t dismiss us so quickly. I have many questions. And if this setting is uncomfortable for you, I can suggest a less threatening site we can meet at.”

“No,” interpreted the ET, turning another dial on his utility belt, as a couple of brief yelps were heard from the jumble of hackers. “We desire to interact with your young computer people, the ones most directly responsible for solving our puzzle screen. They demonstrated trust and curiosity enough to touch our screen projections. We now have their identifying DNA.”

The two Amphibianoids behind the leader began working small keypads on their utility belts. A scream suddenly rang out, echoing around the hangar. Both Puntstain and Gerandi were lifted up three meters from amid the huddle of hackers, then pulled level toward the three ETs. They were suspended three meters above the center of the computer circle and the Amphibianoids, who were now looking up at them.

“We desire that you come back to our planet with us,” the ET leader invited, looking at the pair dangling above him. “We wish to study your innovative thinking processes.”

Both Puntstain and Gerandi were shaking their heads no before the Amphibianoid’s translator had even finished. “No thank you. No!” Puntstain now said. “Absolutely not!” chimed in Gerandi.

The three Amphibianoids consulted each other, speaking quickly in their own language with some gesturing as well. Finally the ET leader looked back up at the terrified pair of young hackers hovering overhead. “What if we doubled your current salary to come work for us? Company car? Paid vacations and personal time? Generous retirement plan?”

Punstain and Gerandi did a double-take. They consulted with each other, in mid-air. “Tempting,” replied Puntstain. “Tempting,” echoed Gerandi. “But we still must decline.”

“Very well,” concluded the ET leader. “We cannot take you as prisoners of war because your species has not blown up our craft, nor fired any weapons at us. So we are contractually bound by the laws of this solar system to respect your sovereign rights as individuals.”

The leader then turned to Major Sisselfort. “Our business is concluded here. We are departing now.” With that, the ETs started to fade, then elongated to shoot straight up toward and then thru the ceiling, leaving only a few quick-to-fade sparkles behind.

Plop! Thump! Puntstain and Gerandi hit the concrete floor in the middle of the computer circle. “Are both of you all right?” called out the Major to the pair sitting on the floor, quaking and panting. Both nodded they were OK, as the hangar suddenly burst into motion.

The highest ranking Security Airmen were running toward the hangar doors while shouting into their radios: “Code Ten! Repeat Code Ten! Alien encounter!” said one. While another was headed to another door while yelling “I want all-source, above-ground surveillance focused on the space above this building!” into his radio. “Get the medical team up here to check this pair out!” ordered yet another. Major Sisselfort sighed.

Inside the circle, Puntstain and Gerandi now stared at each other, shaking their heads in disbelief. They allowed nervous smiles now that the danger had passed. “Think I can put this on my job resume?” Gerandi joked. “You know, that a bunch of Amphibianoids thought enough of our computer skills that they wanted to hire me, both of us, away from here?”

Puntstain chuckled, then looked at the Major. “So, uh, since the mission is obviously over,” he demanded, “in light of what just happened, we need to renegotiate our contract, salary, benefits. I really hope you don’t have anything important to do for the rest of the day ...”

Puntstain turned to Gerandi. "And after that, how about a late dinner somewhere. Frog legs?" he suggested with an impish grin. END

Marilyn K. Martin is a freelance writer and humorist. Her work has appeared in the Third Flatiron Anthologies, “Universe Horribilis” and “Lost Worlds, Retraced.” She has also been published in “Fiction Vortex,” “Encounters,” and “Bewildering Stories.”


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