A Hero Named Lightman (One Not-Heroic, Non-Man’s Story) – post #11

chapter eleven

Time slogged by at its even pace.  Joe looked up at the round Pabst-sponsored clock which hung above his kitchen table.  He won it playing that game at the carnival where you roll the wooden ball up the ramp and into one of several varying point-getting holes.  He was good at it.  His girlfriend at the time, Arlene, wanted the big stuffed giraffe that hung amongst the prizes.  Joe needed a clock.  They broke up soon afterwards.

The second-hand clicked along per usual, which was far too slow in his current mood.  One in the morning now hovered twelve minutes away, and the time he truly awaited ninety minutes beyond that.  That’s when it would be 6:30AM in New York, the time that Abby would wake up to get ready for work.

He needed to get a hold of her to tell her what had happened and ask for help.  Joe had sent texts initially, and then finally bit the bullet and called her when no response came.  He hoped his sister would answer, even though he felt a little badly about potentially waking her at such an hour.  When she didn’t reply, he felt a mixture of relief and frustration.

Abby had always been a remarkably light slight sleeper.  There were countless times in high school where Joe snuck in after curfew past his mother’s quiet room only to be confronted with a grumpy, wide awake sibling.  He knew that her only solution to getting rest on a nightly basis consisted of turning off every gadget within earshot and inserting earplugs.  Joe hoped she forgot this time, but figured it unlikely.  He would just have to wait.

The midnight sun continued pouring through his open blinds.  He couldn’t sleep, but the light wasn’t the problem.  Joe had adjusted to the endless summer after moving to Barrow three years ago, and could pretty much doze off surrounded by fire if he had to.  No, it was what he had seen, and what could still happen, that occupied his mind and kept him from dozing off.

He paced around his home, from living room to kitchen to bedroom and back.  It was an uneven, elliptical loop, and the carpet wore thinner along that path than anywhere else in the house.  Joe held a fresh bottle of beer in his right hand as he continued lap after lap.  Five Kokanee’s had already been polished off, but they hadn’t any effect on his mood.  He just felt too wound up with what had happened.  The events of the prior day cycled continuously, and the bullet points were extraordinary.

Seeing an alien.

Talking to an alien.

Watching the military take the alien away.

Joe relived it in his mind again and again.  Then, when a tiny sliver of the experience was the slightest bit uncertain, he walked over to his computer and relived it in real time.

During the past spring, he had complained to Abby in one of their weekly phone conversations about some person or critter thrashing the small bits of furniture and camping gear left out in his backyard.  He didn’t know if it was a desperate neighborhood addict or some thieving bear, but he figured he should find out which it was so as to set out the right kind of bait in his trap.  Abby followed up the chat by mailing him a small camera with step by step instructions for how to wire it back to his laptop for later viewing.

He set the system up right away and, for a time, checked out the yard-cam diligently.  However, after a month of inactivity, he stopped reviewing the morning video recap.  Joe shrugged off the incidents and told Abby that the destructive creature probably left the area.  This, it turned out, was sort of true.

The reality, Joe eventually ascertained, had to do with his first foray into making a small batch of his own barley wine.  The mysterious yard vandalism, he figured, had only occurred during nights of the tasting phase of the process.  He came to the conclusion that maybe it was him, incredibly inebriated from strong and questionably made spirits, that had been the guilty party.  His memory couldn’t corroborate this, but the name of his ex-girlfriend painted onto the bottom side of his wheelbarrow seemed to be a fairly believable indictment.

Eventually, he put the episode out of his mind and forgot the whole thing happened.  He also forgot about the camera itself.  It had kept running.

Joe sat down at the kitchen table, and pressed play on the video from the past evening for the eighth time.  And, as with each viewing prior, the appearance of Erke startled him.  Seeing him, tall, red skinned, wrapped in a cloak, emerge from the woods was utterly shocking.  It felt unbelievable to see this creature, but it became even more surreal when Joe watched himself enter the frame. In a lifetime of fantasizing about meeting beings who were different than normal earthlings, here existed proof.  Reality, face to face.  Joe shook his head in disbelief, watching his dreams.

That feeling of excitement, though, got surpassed by a swell of uneasiness and fear.  Clearly, the military didn’t know about his film.  If they found out, it, and maybe he, would be taken away.  Could they find about it?  They came to his property after the crash without being contacted.  Maybe they knew, somehow.

Joe pressed stop and listened.  His paranoia went into overdrive.  This wasn’t the first time in the last few hours that he stood absolutely still to try to catch the faintest sound of an imminent intruder.  In each instance before, he eventually returned to the video, tentatively accepting the silence at its wordless-ness.  This time, however, something, or someone, definitely existed outside.

He looked over to his shotgun, it leaning haphazardly against the stove.  A box of bullets sat just above it on the counter.  Joe remained frozen.

There wasn’t the usual crunch of boots he heard when people were stepping on his back deck.  Whatever was out there, it walked very softly.  There were plenty of animal possibilities, but he couldn’t shake the idea the visitor might be something else altogether.

A light knock on his back door forced his breath out.

Not an animal.

Another knock came though.  He looked at the gun again.

“Joe?”

A woman’s voice whispered through the pine, capturing his attention.  He paused briefly, and then shakily called out.

“Yes.  Who is it?”

“It’s me Joe.  It’s Katie.  Can you let me in?”

It took a beat, and the name registered.  He stepped to the entry, though not without the level of worry continuing its steep climb upward.  Joe’s mind raced.  His hand moved slowly towards the knob.

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A Hero Named Lightman (One Not-Heroic, Non-Man’s Story) – post #10

episode one / chapter ten

The six men in fatigues watched their captive in awe.  He had slid off the wobbly metal stool where he had been seated, and stood tall.  Stretching his frame lengthwise, his angular head now easily rose a foot and a half above the tallest guard, with hands pushed up even higher.  Next, his arms came down and went out to either side, showing a width at the shoulder similar to that of two standard humans combined.  The group of soldiers continued staring, more impressed than concerned with the being’s unusual movements.

Erke didn’t want to appear to the men like he intended to attack or escape.  Scaring them into lifting their weapons was decidedly last on his list of hopeful outcomes.  He wanted to keep things appearing normal, per se, prior to performing the planned diversion.

So, he casually, slowly, and with great exaggeration, moved around like his muscles were sore and needed some flexing.  He twisted his frame, leaning one way and then the other, taking excessive pains to not seem threatening.  The ridiculous movements reminded him of those exercises his bosses forced all their underlings to take part in.  As if Erke, and not his desk-bound honcho, was the one in need of moving around.

He gave himself one more pyramid push, as that annoying training rep had called it, and moved back to the stool.  Erke straddled the small, damaged seat and arched up onto his toes.  Without looking up at the woman on the balcony, whom he hoped was paying attention, he started counting silently to himself.  At the number five, he brought himself down as hard as gravity would allow on the stool below.

The sound of metal breaking apart shattered the air.  Bent pieces bounced on the shiny hard floor, sending a concert of pings spilling across the ground.  Attention of everyone in the vicinity drew to the piercing collapse of the seat, and the loud thud of the falling alien that immediately followed.  Whatever noise that had been generated from the catwalk above melded seamlessly and completely.

The frozen slabs that were Katie’s feet stumbled and slapped at the hard ground.  She grimaced with each awkward step, trying to navigate the cold, rocky terrain around the rim of the base towards the small tent that was her temporary quarters.  Taking this route doubled her time, but more than halved the likelihood that someone would spot her.  While a soldier walking through the base wouldn’t necessarily bring out suspicion on its own, one without shoes on probably would.

She held her breath and passed by the backside of the latrine before then slipping through the half-dozen jeeps that amounted to the motor pool.  Katie wasn’t running, exactly.  That would seem obvious.  She just moved briskly, like there was somewhere she needed to be.  In fact, as she sped nearer to her goal, that became the all encompassing realization.  She did need to be somewhere.  Katie had no idea where that was, only that it definitely wasn’t on this base.

Around a pair of empty metal barrels and past a squat pile of debris that sort of resembled her commanding officer, she found the entrance flap to her quarters.  She ducked inside, joining a cot and a heater in the spare surroundings.

The lonely tent had been given to her due to a lack of functional barracks, as well as the fact that Katie was the only woman on this detail.  Rather than have her mix in with the men, creating more potential for unwanted behavior than already existed in this uneventful cold, the officers placed her here.  One enlisted man pointed at this thin canvas home said she was lucky that she got her own place.  He laughed when he walked away.

Katie reached under the thin, wooden bed and extracted a small blue travel bag.  From it, she pulled a pair of bright white Nike’s.  They were her jogging shoes, used only twice since her time in Barrow began.

She slid the footwear on quickly, trying to ignore the bolts of pain surging from the soles of her feet.  A small brown purse was yanked from the bag and slung over her left shoulder before she raced back through the flap to the outside again.  The carrier contained her ID and some money, though she had no idea how much.  Her Air Force paycheck went straight into the bank, and a part-time off-hours job cleaning up a local television station’s studio provided only a pittance of spending money.

Katie walked fast, and parsed her options just as quickly.

Taking a jeep would require having signed orders.  No way a guard would let her drive off the base in a military vehicle without them.

Walking off the base was an option during the day, but not at this time of night.  Even though the sun still hovered in the sky with the clock nearly at midnight, the guards wouldn’t let her pass on foot.  It took forty minutes to walk to town.  Camp curfew came within an hour, and they knew there was nowhere you could get to and still make it back in time.  One option remained.

Katie headed to the gearhead pit.  An unused area near the side gate had been taken over by a handful of enlisted men who liked nothing more than to work on old motorcycles throughout the length of their downtime.  In all honesty, it was a more useful hobby than the drinking and whoring that otherwise filled the off-duty schedule of most of the company, Katie included.  She knew, though, that there was likely to be one or two in working order, with keys left in the ignition.

The pit sat quiet.  A rusted old Yamaha dirt bike sat leaning against a coil of metal fence.  Katie spotted it, remembering riding a similar one with an old boyfriend whose name currently escaped her.  She threw her leg over the saddle and kicked at the starter.

It sputtered to life, coughing and belching thick sounds into the peaceful night air.  For the past hour, she had done everything possible to avoid making even the smallest bit of noise.  Now, in order to cross the last line of escape, she had to be louder than anyone for a quarter mile.

She pushed off and bounced out through an empty, icy field towards the small box of a guardhouse.  A tall, pale man with a helmet and white sash hung out of the booth, hearing her approach.  He held up his hand, and she acquiesced.

“Evening Corporal.  Pretty late to head out for a nip.”

“Is it?”

Katie’s panicky brief retort was met with only a stone face.  She needed to attempt a little friendliness.

“With this light, it’s hard to tell.  Ha ha.  I, um, am meeting some friends.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yep.  And I’m a fast drinker.  Er, driver.”

The man chuckled.

“Right, driver.  You better be.  Don’t get stuck on the outside, we close at oh-one hundred hours.”

One o’clock, she thought.

“Of course.”

The guard lifted the red and white striped metal gate that always made Katie think of candy canes.

“See ya.”

The man saluted good bye.  Katie revved the throttle, looked behind her at the quiet base, and sped away with nary a gesture in return.

The men were caught off guard, each shocked from the short lived decibel bomb caused by the now fallen alien.  They looked over the carnage.  Broken metal chunks littered the ground.  Two of the men laughed, three looked concerned, and one spoke up.

“Are you ok?”

Erke looked at that man, then to a spot just above and beyond him, where a brown door had closed gently and firmly.  He looked back at the soldier, who stood pensively.  Erke thought about what he wanted to say, and finally spoke to himself as much as those around him.

“Hopefully, I’ll survive.”

A Hero Named Lightman (One Not-Heroic, Non-Man’s Story) – post #9

episode one / chapter nine

Katie stayed low.  Her hands and knees inched along the metal scaffolding, taking her very slowly towards the goal.  There’s no hurry, she kept repeating inwardly.  If she could make it to the exit door without being spotted, no matter how long it took, that would be sufficient.

She reached the near corner of the building without too much effort.  It was, after all, only about twenty-five feet from the balcony where she started.  Still, her bare hands were already sore from bearing the weight of the crawl, and she was pretty sure her legs were starting to bruise.  It would probably make the next eighty yards or so a painful voyage.

Katie paused and looked down.  From this vantage point, she could see the big truck with the tarped off payload.  It sat parked on the far side of the building.  Nearer to her, in the center of the facility, two men stood at attention.  They faced towards the front door, an area just out of Katie’s view.  The object of their concern likely existed close to that spot.

Looking forward again, she took a deep breath and started moving.  Right hand, left knee, and then the opposite combo.  She focused on being as light a touch as feasible, so as not to cause any sounds to bounce around her and to the floor below.

Despite the extreme importance of being aware of each and every movement, the repetitiveness of it allowed a brief opening for her mind to wander through.  The discussion she had heard minutes ago filled her thoughts.  An alien, a real live actual alien, apparently sat just downstairs.  Katie had never given much thought to the possibility of extra terrestrials.  In sci-fi movies, no matter how good the makeup or CGI, she never could accept that these creatures were possible, always seeing the human actor playing dress up instead.

Now, however, reality had seemingly changed.  A…something, sat below her.  What did it look like?  Katie wondered what she would, or could, see, once she reached the door and turned around.

Her quiet crawl to potential freedom nearly reached its end.  The base of the metal exit sat just a few feet away now.  She looked up, scanned the passage, and grimmaced.  Between her and the outside world, a large obstacle remained.

Or, in actuality, a small one.

There was no doorknob.  Instead, the door had a horizontal bar that needed to be pushed to release the latch.  When that happens, a modest metallic click sounds.  Upon leaving a crowded and boisterous mess hall, this type of noise went unheard.  In trying to enter a dark and sleep filled barracks at two in the morning, that tiny latch sounded like a pistol going off.  Within these tense, silent surroundings, it would be more like a shotgun.

Katie bit her lip, considering what to do.  She just wasn’t sure if the door could be pushed open quietly enough to go unnoticed by the military men stationed below.  A murmur of conversation floated up and disrupted her concentration.  She turned to look, with concern that the muttering might be related to her.

Three of the soldiers standing guard stood in a tight triangle, talking with animation about something.  The crawling comrade up above didn’t seem to be the agenda, as they only looked at one another.

From this distance, the voices raised and dropped like waves, but the specifics were never loud enough to quite cause a breaker.   Katie tried to ascertain whether or not she knew any of these men, but couldn’t tell for sure.  It didn’t matter in the end, she thought, as she had no friends on the base anyway.

Beyond them, in a place now barely visible from this new angle, sat a…something.  It faced away from her, seated on a bent metal stool that looked like a child’s version under such a monumental frame.  Hunched forward, she could see a wide back tightly wrapped with a green blanket.  A large bald, red head sat on square shoulders.  It continued peering in the other direction, so Katie couldn’t see any other aspect of this being.

She continued staring, wishing to see more.  The men’s low chatter kept going.  No other movement occurred.  She wanted to wait longer, desperate to catch a glimpse, but knew that every second she crouched there was another one in which she might be caught.

Katie looked back at the door and sighed.  There were no other options.  With a quiet inward breath, she moved into position, bringing both hands up to the metal bar.  She touched it gently, feeling its coldness.  The exit was going to be loud.  There simply existed no way around it.

The dialogue from the men on the first floor hadn’t stopped.  Katie turned back towards them one more time, wondering if there could be any way they wouldn’t notice.

The trio stood in their group, unmoved from before.  She glanced again towards their charge, to see the back of this alien’s head one final time.  It wasn’t there.

The soldiers in the hangar talked only amongst themselves.  Whether they were under orders not to engage, or just uninterested in chatting with him, Erke couldn’t say.  He didn’t much care anyway, as you’re probably not going to have a friendly chat with anyone who points a weapon in your face.

He sat on his hard little stool, stared at the walls, and thought of home.

His father built the family house, and held a large interest in all things constructed.  Whenever a new building went up, he would take the hands of his two young sons and pull them along, explaining in great detail what kept it vertical.  Erke and Emkie couldn’t be less interested in these tours.  They would usually run off as soon as their Dad’s grip could be loosened, and find somewhere to sit quietly and play with their electronic toys.  Their father would eventually find them, and drag them back for another lesson.

Erke pushed his hands together, and thought of his Dad holding them.  He looked up at the wall in front of him, and tried to view it as his father might.

It appeared a plain structure, without much character or style.  The walls seemed thickly made, with none of the interior framing visible.  Likely, the building got built with importance placed more on usefulness and strength rather than creativity.  Based on the high ceilings, Erke considered it had been commissioned to house some sort of large vehicle, either for the roads or the skies.

His head tilted back and a metal walkway came into view.  It appeared to wrap around the inside of the building, presumably to provide a top down view of whatever had been parked on the ground.  He followed it visually around toward the back of the room, where something unexpected was observed.  A woman, crouching, and staring back at him.

Two pure white eyes met Katie’s.  She gasped.

Frozen for the moment out of shock and curiosity, she stared right back and studied him.  His face was long, with the standard human features where they usually were, only at a scale his sizable face required.  Red skin color stood out amongst the room’s plain setting, and further emphasized his bright, pupil-less glare.

Katie felt terrified and excited to have him focus on her.  She had no clue what he was thinking, or whether or not alien expressions could be gauged in the same manner as that of humans.  He appeared to be interested in her, and didn’t look away.  She continued watching him, fascinated.

The woman’s face and body position seemed to indicate that she felt scared.  Erke wondered what she was doing up on the railway.  She appeared clothed like the men on the floor, but certainly wasn’t behaving like a conspirator.  Being up there by herself, quiet, hunched, it came across to him that this person might be hiding.  She seemed to be someone not wanting to get caught.  And, perhaps, he hoped, somebody trying to escape.

Katie’s eyes widened as she momentarily panicked that he would say something to the men around him.  She thought about bolting, and looked back at the door briefly.

The woman turned from his gaze and glanced behind her at a brown door.  She didn’t open it, and instead looked back at him once more.  She wanted to get out, Erke concluded, but couldn’t.  Either the door was locked, or dangerous for her to open.  He didn’t know for sure, but based on her posture, one conclusion seemed more likely.  The woman could go, but it would be a risk.  She needed help, though he had no idea what kind.

He considered his predicament, and wondered if she would tell people about him.  Erke didn’t know what his captors intended, but it seemed unlikely to be terribly positive.  If this woman escaped, perhaps she could do something that would be beneficial to his situation.  It wasn’t much of a chance, but it was all he had at the moment.

Erke rocked on his unsteady seat, and got an idea.  Perhaps, given the right diversion, she could maybe free herself.

Uncertain, her eyes returned to the alien.  His expression had changed, taking on more of a look of understanding.  He then did something Katie wasn’t expecting at all.

His eyes met her again, and he thought back to his meeting with Joe, the first human he ever met.  Joe was friendly, much more so than anyone else that had crossed his path since.  It gave him hope that maybe not everybody on this planet wanted to point a weapon at him.

Joe had nodded at him when he was taken away, after the end of their casual exchange.  The Major as well, had brought his head forward upon leaving.  Erke didn’t know the exact meaning of this movement, but it seemed like a relatively known type of interaction.  Perhaps, he considered, it could be a signal.

The alien nodded.  Katie cocked her head in surprise.

She kept watching, as he lifted himself off the stool, stood in front of it, and smiled.

A Hero Named Lightman (One Not-Heroic, Non-Man’s Story) – post #8

episode one / chapter eight

The Major sat still and silent, staring at the alien behemoth opposite him.  He fixated on the towering creature who, since taking up shaky residence on the uneven metal stool, had been simply peering up at the clear hangar ceiling and smiling.  After another half-minute, the military man couldn’t take it any longer.

“What are you grinning at?  Are other ships out there?”

“Huh?  No, I just enjoy the light.”

The major glanced up and squinted.  He stared at Erke again.

“Please look at me.”

Erke’s gaze came down to the uniformed human stably settled on his seating contraption.  The man’s terseness, brevity, and mustache all seemed to indicate an air of power and importance.  Erke straightened his back in an attempt to inject some respectability into his side of the pair.  Unfortunately, with the body movement, the stool wobbled again.  His balance shifted to and fro as the differently lengthened metal legs alternately hit the ground.  This support device, he presumed, must be made of dignity-free materials.  The alien stabilized once more, mentally shrugged the unattainable respect away, and focused on his counterpart.

“Ok, I am looking at you.”

“Yes, I can see that, thank you.”

The two stared at each other.  Erke finally went again.

“Anything else I can do for you?”

“Yes.”

The major tried to alter his glare so as to appear more serious than before.  His eyebrows arched down and the corners of his frown dropped closer to the floor.  The change in his attitude didn’t really come through, though.  In fact, it only made him look a little bit nauseous.

“Are you feeling alright?”

“Hmm?”

The being’s concern caught the Major slightly off-guard.  He took a moment in consideration before brushing away the comment and returning to commander mode.

“I’m fine.  Anyway, I’ll ask the questions here.”

“Right, so ask away.”

“I’ll decide when to ask questions.”

Erke opened his mouth to speak, but couldn’t formulate an answer to that.  He just waited for the Major to speak again.  A few moments later, the human circled back on the conversation.

“I’d like to ask you some questions.”

“Are you sure?”

Now the Major paused, unsure how to respond to what sounded like cynicism.  The soldier expected snide comments from underlings, but not from something from another world.  He cleared his throat and pressed ahead, ignoring the previous statement.

“Are you the only one?”

“Hmm?  One what?”

“Alien.”

“Ha, no!”

The major’s mouth dropped open, startled at the bold declaration of other beings on the planet.  Erke picked up on it, and clarified.

“Wait, did you mean currently here on earth?”

“Yes, that’s what I meant.  Are you the only alien here on earth?”

“Right.  I am the only one…”

The major relaxed a little.

“…that I know of.”

He stiffened again.

“Are others coming?”

“I…couldn’t say.  It’s possible, I suppose.”

“Why don’t you know?”

“Well, I hadn’t really planned to come here.  It kind of, sort of, was an accident.”

“How…do you fly a ship across the galaxy by accident?”

“It’s easier than you’d think.”

The Major tried to wrap his head around this idea.  Erke, sensing a follow up question that would require an embarrassing revelation, decided to jump back in and keep things moving.

“At any rate, I’m here now.  So, what’s going to happen to me?”

Another pause, and then a careful response.

“Some…officials are coming to meet you.  After that, I couldn’t say.”

The prisoner looked at his guard.  He figured the Major could say, but wouldn’t.  At any rate, seeing the reaction this man gave him upon meeting, with weapons in hand, made Erke less interested in hearing that answer.

“Am I staying here?”

“For now.  I can’t tell you for how long, but yes, you’ll be living in this building for the immediate time being.  We’ll bring you a few things.  Some blankets, a cot so you can get some sleep.”

“Sleep?”

“Yes, you know, close your eyes, forty winks, all that.”

“Close my eyes?!? No thank you!”

“Uh, well, that’s fine, I guess.  We’ll bring in a cot anyway.  Is there anything you require to survive?”

“To survive?  Right, that’s makes me feel very comfortable here.  Thank you for offering so much.  To a visitor from another planet, it’s nice to know you are interested in providing me the absolute least that you can.”

The Major gritted his teeth.

“Just tell me what you need.”

“What do YOU need to survive?  Humans, I mean.”

He sighed, and thought about it.

“Food and water.  That generally gets us by.”

“That works for me too.”

“Alright.  Oh, and a commode.”

“Yuck.  Your species is on its own there.”

The Major nearly followed up with another question, but decided the interaction could stop right there.  Instead, he nodded at the being, turned on his heels, and made a hasty exit from the encounter.

Katie focused on the wide hangar that spilled out in front of her, hoping to spot an idea for escape.  There was no way, after being privy to such a remarkable and likely extremely classified conversation, that she could simply walk down the stairs and out the door.  Who knows what they would do with her if they caught her.  She thought of the various penalties applied for the salute incidents.  Something like this would bring about consequences her mind didn’t want to fathom.

A building of this size would have to have multiple exits, wouldn’t it?  Mostly out of hope, she slowly tried to answer her own question by studying the second floor of the facility.  Katie had traversed the upper level walkway a half dozen times earlier that day, and hadn’t noticed any kind of way out.  Of course, it wasn’t something she had really looked for either.

She systematically scanned the structure, inch by inch, hoping to catch something she previously had been oblivious to.  Something caught her eye, and her breath followed suit.

The far corner.

Tucked up at an angle, along the right wall, a brown metal door.  A fire exit.  It was recessed back from the space around it, and not immediately obvious unless you were looking for it.  She remembered noticing it on her first walk-through that morning, but promptly discharged its existence from her brain.  Trying to store the location of a random door seemed a fact she could live without.  Now, it appeared, quite the opposite was true.

A Hero Named Lightman (One Not-Heroic, Non-Man’s Story) – post #7

episode one / chapter seven

The Captain’s radio buzzed, cutting through the silence that filled the back of the vehicle.  It caught the seated soldiers off-guard and sent three of them an inch into the air in surprise.  The man in charge moved is hands quickly but clumsily towards the device, fumbling it like a sleepy man with an alarm clock.  He finally gathered himself and gripped the radio firmly with both hands.  With a short, deep breath, he lifted it to his mouth and pressed a red button.

“Yes?”

He released the button but otherwise didn’t move.  A half moment later, a fuzzy voice crackled back.

“Captain, the Major is en route from the crash site.  It should be about twenty minutes before he arrives.  His orders were for all of you to stay put in there until then.”

Ten seconds of contemplation, and then response.

“10-4.  We’ll stay in lockdown.”

The radio beeped, and the unseen voice poked inside once more.

“Everything ok in there?”

The Captain looked at Erke, sitting meekly in the center of the ambulance floor.  His size was still impressive, even in that position.

“We’re fine.  No problems to report.  Keep us posted on the Major’s arrival.”

He tucked the radio back into his belt and scanned the faces of his comrades.  The fear of the unknown had mostly faded from each of them, as boredom and anxiousness seemed to be gaining ground.  The Captain weighed the situation in his mind.

A few minutes from now, this being would be placed in some sort of restricted area.  The military would deny his existence, and command every military man who had been involved in this operation to swear corroboration.  He would never know anything more about the unknown visitor who currently sat a mere two feet away.  There would never be another opportunity like this, in all likelihood, for the rest of his life.  Curiousness overtook protocol.

“So, Erke, right?”

Everyone looked at him, the alien included.

“Yes, that’s right.”

The Captain shifted in his seat.

“Um, is that your first or last name?”

“It’s my name.  What do you mean?”

“Well, we all have first and last names.  Plus middle names, most of us.  Though nobody really uses those.”

“You have three names, one of which you don’t use?  Seems redundant and confusing.”

“Yeah, er, well, I guess, kind of.  My full name is Peter Angelo Pickerel.  My friends and family call me Peter, subordinates and supervisors call me Captain Pickerel.  The last name is for my family.”

“Ah, I see.  Makes sense, I suppose.”

“How does it work for you?”

“Well, the first male child is given a name that combines his father’s name, his family’s home town, and the city where he’s born.  It’s essentially one long, unpronounceable string of letters.  Eventually, brevity comes into play and some shortened combination is used instead.”

“Oh, like a nickname.”

“A nickname?”

“Yes, we use them as well.  He’s called Stretch.”

The captain pointed at the tiny private near the back door of the wagon.  The other men looked his way too.

“Because he’s so short.”

Erke looked at the suddenly bitter looking little soldier, who went rigid with this attention.

“I see.  Very clever.”

The Captain considered the comment, unable to tell if it was serious or sarcastic.  Stretch kept staring at Erke and, feeling he was owed something for the height shaming, decided to ask a question.

“How tall are you?”

“Err, I’m not sure how to answer that when I don’t know your measurement system.  I’d say I stand about yay taller than most of the humans I’ve met so far.”

He held his hands over a foot apart, less than the width of his body.

“So you must be over seven feet tall, easy.”

“If you say so.”

“Are you tall on your planet?”

“No, I’m actually one of the smaller ones.  Kind of annoying.”

“Yeah.  I know how you feel.”

Erke looked at Stretch, who sort of smiled.

A loud banging against the back of the wagon shook the insides, startling the engrossed inhabitants once more.  The captain dropped his radio, which clattered on the hard floor.  The squadron and its captive all spun at the same time towards the spot from which the sound had come.  They watched in silence, and nothing else rattled through.  Instead, slowly, the car began rolling forward again.

Knots were on the list.  Each day, Katie kept count of everything that bothered or aggravated her.  For any given twenty-four hours, she ran a tally in her brain, keeping the number socked away until she went to bed.  The next morning, the counter reset to zero.  On this day, at nearly ten o’clock at night, it had reached seventeen.  By her spotty recollection, this seemed an average total.

It was an imperfect and somewhat pointless system, as she rarely remembered what had actually triggered the instances.  She solely counted them.  This caveat lead to the likely scenario in which particularly stupid items might get added to the list two or three times in a given cycle.  Katie accepted this flawed mechanism, acknowledging her brain simply couldn’t spare the memory for such things as detail.

She dug her fingernails into the laces of her right combat boot, trying to loosen the tight ball of frustration that currently kept it on her foot.  Not now, she thought.  It was time to move quickly, without hiccups or delays or list-landing problems.  She tugged and pulled at the knot, finally getting enough slack to undo it and relax the stiff leather footwear.

The left boot, unlike its counterpart, slid off without landing on the list.  Katie stood carefully in thick black socks.  The metal platform below her feet made no sound.  She remained still for a moment just to make sure she had attracted no attention from any of the soldiers below.

The military men stood quietly, ignoring the pings and settling sounds of the old hangar above and around them.  They focused, intently, only on what lay in front of them.

The army wagon, which had pulled in moments prior, now sat off to the side.  Two metal stools had been placed behind it, near the middle of the large structure’s floor.  One of those stools stood just off balance due to a slightly bent left leg.  The being that occupied that seat struggled with this constant shifting of weight, as all four of its feet never touched the ground at the same time.  It appeared uncomfortable and frustrating.

The Major sat in the other stool.