"My gin and tonic would taste better if it didn't have such a stupid name."
Marty had changed the names of the drinks in his bar. It was all part of the trend. It annoyed me.
"How can you say that, Dave?" asked Phil. "What's wrong with calling it a 'Flat Twitlamziy'? I don't have a problem with my 'Xolithian Banger'."
"You mean your Bloody Mary."
"Whatever. 'A rose by any other name...'"
"Right. You know, it's not like the Guests actually care about this sort of attention. They pay no attention to changes in style. The lines of an automobile, or a pair of sunglasses, or a hairdo, or any other example of human vanity, mean nothing to them."
"You may be right, Dave. But still, we must cater to them."
Phil started to answer, but he was cut off by the television being suddenly turned way up for a special announcement direct from the United Nations building. Marty always did that when a Special Bulletin came through, which was about every two hours on CNN. There were only a few thousand Guests on Earth, but they never slept and with their special travel harnesses they manage to really get around.
"The UN was a joke until they came." I was trying to get Phil's attention. "They couldn't even use the weapons left over from the Cold War, for God's sake. Why, the UN might have finally gone the way of the dinosaurs if..."
Phil made a sound like air escaping from a tire. He was joined in this excellent impression by several other regulars at Marty's. It took me a while to realize that I was the object of their exertions. Okay. I can take a hint, and I reluctantly he stopped complaining; but I did my best to ignore what had riveted everyone else's attention. I failed.
They were interviewing Secretary-General Stefan Dusan. Again. "They repeat that they mean us no harm," said the small man. "They are only visiting. When we ask how long, they give us those enigmatic smiles..." A grin crossed the face of the speaker, as if he were remembering a special, personal delight. "They have wonderful smiles, don't they?" he asked the reporter.
She was caught up in the moment. "Oh yes," she said, nodding. "There's no way to really describe it." Unfortunately, she spent the next five minutes trying.
Look. It's not like I mind the television all that much. Growing up in a large and noisy family had made a contribution to my ability to tune out the blandishments of mass media. I'm a little less adept at ignoring my flesh-and-blood neighbors. The guy on my right was saying the same sort of stuff as was coming out of the tube, using words like "special" and "transcendental" and "meaningful." I hate those words.
I finished the remains of my drink with one gulp, and gestured for a refill. Naturally the waitress paid no attention, captivated as she was by the goddamn television. To make matters worse, a portly man at the next table lit a cigarette from a pack of Guest Conquests.
As the acrid smoke drifted in my direction I thought how little things had changed for the better since the arrival fo these beings from beyond the stars. I hate smoke. Or to be more precise, I can't abide cigarettes. It must something to do with the chemical treatment of the paper. My eyes were watering, and I wished I could magically transform the man's cigarette into a nice, inoffensive pipe. At least the aliens didn't smoke. They didn't do a lot of things. People didn't want to copy them nearly so much as they wanted to be trendy.
My eyes were drawn to the colorful package of cigarettes, with one of the golden aliens standing on top of a hill, gazing at the moon -- the silver orb making the "O" in Conquests. I hate that name. Whatever else you could say about them, the aliens hadn't come to conquer anyone or anything. They put no demands on anyone. They wanted nothing. And perhaps most inexplicable of all, they offered nothing.
"They're just tourists -- just here to see the sights. My ass." I probably said that aloud, but I kept my voice low. No reason to share my suspicions with a typical cross-section of gullible barflies. I'll tell you: ever since I was a kid, I've had a contrary streak. I don't think about it much. There's just something in me that doesn't relax in a crowd. I just don't enjoy anything genuinely popular. I know I have a reputation for being a "stick in the mud". When my friends run out to see a big, successful movie I can always find something better to do.
There was a certain irony in that some of those blockbuster movies were now effectively baned. Unfortunately a number of obscure low-budget films that I like a lot were also unavailable. No one seems to be sure how it had begun, but most movies and books and television shows and comics that portrayed extraterrestrials in any fashion were withdrawn from public view. Monsters from outer space had gone first; but they were soon followed by the dippy little friendly aliens.
I can't even lay hands on a Japanese epic filled with flabby, rubber costumes as sinister as the mascots on kiddy shows. I investigated. I can't find any sinister government agencies at work; there's simply no official censorship! The owners of the properties voluntarily took everything off the market that could possibly give offense to the visiting extra-terrestrials. In the case of public domain classics, materials disappeared and weren't restocked.
For a while I thought ther was some sort of mind-control at work. But then I would run into another natural curmudgeon like me and we would compare notes. The horrible truth is that the Guests were unbearably, incontrovertibly, insufferably popular! Human beings just couldn't do enough to make a good impression on them. The vagaries of human nature could always be counted on to provide unintentional comedy relief.
Finally the waitress noticed my desperate hand signals and went about replenishing my gin and tonic. While Phil and the rest of them remained entranced by the gibberish emanating from the television, I figured, what the hell, I would make time with the waitress. She was distracted by the same CNN special as the others, so I had ample time to take in her features. She had a genuinely cute face, triangular, but with a slightly crooked nose. Her extremely long red hair framed a figure that was aerodynamically sound. And she had this great walk. Her name tag said "Dawn".
She was cute, and she knew it. Standard compliments would glide off her back. All good looking people have something they're self-conscience of. Something they need to be reassured about.
"You have a very attractive nose, Dawn," I said.
Bingo! She turned her head a regarded me as a real, live person for the first time.
"You think so? I've always thought...I even considered..."
"No. Don't touch it. It's perfect as it is."
"Phil. By the way, I am very impressed that you said 'as' instead of 'like'. So few people today,..."
Oh my God! An English major. Still, I'd been able to pry one female of the species loose from the herd mentality--and a young waitress at that!
All right. I should have known better. One of the Guests floated into the bar. It was my Fate my Destiny and the general theory of Pessimism. No one noticed me, of course. Their faces almost seemed to glow from the reflected glory of the amazing body that gracefully glided into Marty's Bar and alighted on a seat at a table directly opposite Phil and me.
Naturally, Dawn moved on to the Guest, trying her level best to fall out of her regulation French maid costume. Although the Guests didn't drink alcohol, or smoke, or eat, they did drink water. There was honor and public acclaim in simply being addressed by one of them. Dawn wasn't about to miss her chance.
Everyone shifted around in their seats in hope of a better view. I stared morosely at my drink. Seen one of these aliens, and you've seen them all. They're all tall, none shorter than seven feet, none taller than nine. This one seemed about eight feet. He fit surprisingly well into his seat. But then they were wiry and almost elastic. There was an androgynous quality about them that women especially seemed to like, as the waitress was demonstrating. But before she could gush out a few words of welcome and ask for his order, the Guest held up a golden hand and spoke.
I couldn't hear what the Guest said. His words were obligterated by the explosion behind him. Confetti made of glass and wood and plaster rained down on everyone in the room but the Guest--a shimmering halo forming as the debris was deflected by the force field that emanated from his ebony travel harness. Although the bomb had exploded at his feet, the Guest was, of course, unharmed. I really can't see why the Earth First!-ers bother trying to kill the Guests. Their force fields seemed capable of withstanding just about anything. Despite hundreds of Earth First! attacks, I've never heard of a single Guest being harmed. A lot of humans had died, but no Guest had suffered so much as a stubbed toe. I suppose they have toes--no one's ever seen their feet.
Amid the moans of the dying and the smell of the dead, Marty rushed over to greet his Guest. He had to side-step to avoid a former patron who had chosen that moment to fall forward, lifeless.
"I am so sorry," Marty said. "I offers yer my deepest and humblest apologies for yer inconvenience."
"Think nothing of it, my good man," said the Guest. His voice, like all their voices, was high and reedy -- neither masculine nor feminine, nonetheless filled with authority and paternalistic tolerance. "These things do happen. Not your fault at all, dear sir. Not your fault at all."
The Guest's voice seemed to break the suspended animation that had gripped the bar in the seconds after the explosion. Everyone began moving at once. Some people ran into the street to hail the police. Other patrons were ministering to the injured and dying. Phil and I were protected from the blast by our table, which had upended.
It had been a small bomb.
Phil, who had taken several courses in first aid, CPR, and aerobics, rushed off to help the waitress, Dawn. She didn't look very cute now. To my untrained eye, she looked very dead. I know nothing of first aid. I would help best by not helping at all. Instead I studied the Guest.
I had really never looked at a Guest before. Sure, I've seen them everywhere: in public, on magazine covers, on TV. They were just so damned popular. I'd done my best to ignore them -- something that was becoming increasingly difficult to do. I blatantly stared at the Guest. Since everyone stared at Guests, they'd better be used to it.
The odd thing was that he seemed to be intently watching one of the television sets that had survived the blast. Now, I'm no expert, but it was common knowledge that Guests completely ignored TV. I remember Carl Sagan explaining to Jay Leno that there was some speculation that the Guests' eyes might not resolve the TV scan lines into a viewable picture. So much for that theory. This Guest was having no trouble watching CNN, nor did he seem to have any trouble hearing it, even though I found it impossible through all the other noise.
CNN broke for a commercial and the Guest stopped watching the TV. He looked at me. It took me several seconds to realize that the Guest was actually looking at me, rather than some spot on the wall behind me. I nodded. The Guest beamed back warmly. I was about to smile, but caught myself. In a blinding instant I felt some of the affection, some of the ineffable admiration that caused others to jabber on and on. I have never felt so euphoric about another person. It made me violently ill.
"Steady yourself, dear sir," the alien was saying. "I believe you'll want to see what happens next."
I looked up from the floor. The Guest had come to sit beside me. The table had been righted. There were two glasses of water on it. I could remember none of this.
"Chin up, now. There's a good lad." Mysteriously, I felt better.
"Thank you. I'm OK."
"Yes, I know. I thought you were different, you know. I could tell the moment I entered this establishment."
"How am I different? How could you tell? What are you talking about?"
"Come, come, sir. No need for us to mince words. You know of what I'm speaking. Your attitude, sir. No fawning sycophant you."
"No, I suppose I'm not."
"When you became ill... That's how we know, my good man. That's how we know."
"Yes. That's when..."
"At first I thought you might have been the cad that exploded that device. But, no. There was no hatred in you. No indeed. No hatred at all. Just...indifference."
I nodded. Indifference. Yes, that was just what I felt about the Guests: indifference. Not now though. I actually liked this Guest. I was about to tell him when he waved me to silence. The alien pointed at the television. The text in the lower right-hand corner once again identified the Secretary-General of the United Nations. I had never known Dusan to utter an important word in his life, but my new companion was insistent so I tried to listen. Although things were starting to calm down, it was still too noisy to hear the TV. I pointed to my ear. The alien nodded and curled one of his three long fingers into the palm of his hand. Immediately I could hear the television perfectly. The background noise faded into a quiet pulse.
"...have been here a year now," Dusan was saying, "and we at the United Nations have decided the proper demonstration of our great respect and admiration for our Guests."
The camera panned to the Guest sitting next to Dusan. The text identified him as Mr. Smith, envoy to the UN. Envoy might have been too strong a word. He was the one that had decided to visit the UN every day. Since the Guests never identified themselves individually, the press began naming them. Smith was the Guest at the UN, Jones the one at the White House, Ivanov in Moscow, and so on. Briefly, I wondered what my companion was called.
"No small gesture would do. For all that our visitors from the beyond have done for us...",
They've never done a damn thing for or against the Earth, as far as I can recall.
"...of the highest caliber. A gift of the greatest magnitude. A present of the most..."
It was a real shame that the Secretary-General was so comfortable with the English language.
"...unparalleled in the history of this august body. It was with the consultation and the unanimous vote of the UN that I present the Guests with the control and dominion of our planet. Mr. Smith, the Earth is yours. I sincerely hope that it is adequate. We are at your command."
I've never been good at poker. I'm afraid my face showed all of the shock and anger I felt. How could they! Then I remembered the Guest with me. He smiled. Placidly? Confidently? Knowingly? He was impossible to read.
Back on the TV, I saw that Smith was one of the shortest aliens, but when he stood up he still he towered over the Secretary-General. Smith took the large piece of parchment that Dusan held and spoke to the Secretary-General warmly and pleasantly.
"Thank you, thank you so much. You are much too kind, my friend. Much too kind."
As usual he did not speak into the camera or the microphones. He spoke directly to Secretary-General Dusan as if they were alone and not surrounded by the media.
"Your offer is generous. Much too generous, but I cannot be rude. How can I not but accept? Thank you, thank you."
The Secretary-General began speaking again. Mercifully, the Guest turned off the volume.
"There," he began, "wasn't that intriguing? I knew you would find it such."
"But what are you going to do?" was all I could say.
"Now, now. Plenty of time for that later. Plenty of time. There will be much for you to do."
"You and others like you. You do not think this was the first time something of this sort has occurred?"
"No, I suppose not," I admitted.
"There must be people here to do that sort of work. Peole that everyone can look up to. Local people. Then he could be free to pursue our own goals."
Of course. They needed Terran administrators--Colonial Governors. It seemed so natural, so reasonable.
"You have the UN," I said.
The Guest stared at me. I felt that I could almost read his poker face, but the feeling passed. He hummed something that sounded like an oboe solo.
"My dear sir, political bodies are quite inappropriate. They would just want us to run something."
I smiled. He was right about them, of course. I felt awash with a feeling of camaraderie, of shared values, of a shared joke.
"But what do you want?"
"There are many other worlds. There is so much to see, so much to do."
"So many to be given."
"Oh my goodness, no. We really wish that would not happen. We are merely guests...just visiting...tourists. It is up to you to run your world. Here, take my card."
He handed me a completely blank blue ribbon. "Contact me any time. Any of us can reach me. Cheers."
He rose and left the bar without another word and I stared blankly after him.
I admit it: all my life I've been a misanthrope. The mass of humanity are just damned sheep looking for a shepherd. Well I just met a shepherd, and he had no more respect for the sheep than did I. He was more interested in looking at the meadow than looking after the sheep.
Maybe the Guest had done something to influence me. In a way too subtle for words, the Guest had made me feel like we were both Masters--both shepherds. But I am no shepherd, and I am no damned sheepdog.
I helped myself to a drink from the bar. The ambulance had finally arrived, and it was making a hell of a racket. You know, the Earth First! terrorists have the wrong targets. The Guests aren't the enemies of humanity: it's our own sheepdogs, willing to do anything to please the Master--whoever that may be.
I think I'll look up the Earth First!-ers in the morning. Maybe they can be redirected to more useful targets. Besides, they might have some bootleg video tapes. I've got a craving to see Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. A real craving.
|--by Brad Linaweaver and William Alan Ritch|