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.
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.”
“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.