The hazy morning sunlight filtered through the rip in the cheap hotel curtains. It stared at the vanity, reflecting from the mirror to the lamp across the room. The sun was always low in this winter sky and as the beam of light slowly traced a reflective path across the mirror, a misshapen mass of lumps and bumps under the covers rolled over and snored loudly.
Outside, hover-jet taxis whisked past, tearing up the virgin plains, whipping around new construction sites. Workers vibrated their many antennae at the taxis and continued to turn and shape the minerals of the ground in the way the Explorers had taught them. The beam of light gained intensity as the sun rose higher.
Living above ground was more comfortable, more cost efficient, more convenient, taught the Explorers. Better to cultivate, propagate, invigorate the land. “They break our way of life like they break fast: Without a thought,” leading Yibishar complained.
The beam of light reflected across the room to the television (an ancient device, but one which would whet the Yibisharistis appetites) before working its way across the plain white adobe wall, really a textured, virtually unbreakable ceramic derived from minerals present in the indigenous soils.
The phone began to ring and the sunbeam worked its way across the width of the bed. The lump in the bed groaned, rolled over and reached for the phone. He opened up his eyes and groaned as the light hit them. Momentarily blinded, he knocked the phone off its rest and yowled. He looked around. His vision was blurry, but he knew this hotel room. He didn’t quite recall how he’d arrived in it, but he knew it. He shook his head. He had a vague recollection of how he’d ended the previous evening: gambling, drinking, and spending most of his credits. And then the Explorers had come over to his table and started buying him drinks . . . Aury groaned and immediately threw the covers off the bed and checked himself to make sure none of his parts were missing: feet, hands, arms, legs, eyes, ears, teeth, noses, hair, . . .wait! he stopped and began to groan . . . there was something not quite right here . . .eyes?! He’d only had one eye when he’d gone to bed last night!
Quickly he jumped up and ran across the room to the vanity mirror. There it was. Set right there off to one side of his face. His other eye had shifted over too, and his vision—usually double in the morning anyway—blurred in and out of focus.
A knock sounded on the door.
“Go away! I’m sleeping!” Aury grunted and looked over at the phone by the bed. He looked in the mirror again. I do hope I’m just imagining this. Maybe I’ll just wake up and this will not have happened. His antennae twitched at him. He turned and walked back over to the bed, sat down and picked up the phone off the floor.
He was beginning to get accustomed to the implanted eye but, nonetheless, it took him six tries to get the number right. He held the phone and as he waited for an answer he picked up a glass with one hand, a pitcher with another, turned on the water with a third and scratched his secondary thorax with a fourth.
“You’ve reached the Exploration Command Center phone menu! Please enter the extension number if you know it or hold for more options . . .Press One for Base Operations, press two for Base Operations Orderly room, press three for Base Operations Commander, press four for Base Operations Vice Commander, Press five for . . . . . press seven-hundred fifty seven for Aboriginal Assimilations Research and Alterations Developmental Division — Thank you, your call is very important to us and will be answered in the order received by the next available operator.”
“Dum dum de dum dee ddeee diddle dee dum . . . ” Aury hummed along with the music on the phone. He was familiar with it from his previous contacts with the base.
He leaned back on the bed, setting the phone down next to his ear. On the night stand was an interesting book called Gideon. He picked it up and began to look for good parts. Soon he was asleep, and dreaming.
A long hall stretched before him, and as he walked it turned and twisted this way and that. Each time a turn presented itself, another turn appeared in the other direction, beckoning him. He never took the other turns–he tried to stay to the right, less three hundred and sixty degrees. He knew he wasn’t going in circles. As he passed each turn, billions of tiny men would jump into him, hitting him and pulling at him and he watched how, as he progressed through the maze, parts of his body would be transformed.
“AARADD, can I help you?”
“Sxxxxgjkkkzzzzzzz” Aury snored into the receiver.
“Well, ok then. It’s been my pleasure. Click”
“Snxx–Huh? What? Oh crud. They hung up.” Aury looked at his watch and noticed how incredibly late for work he was. Then, as a piece of the previous evening clicked into his jigsaw memory. its puzzled edges clicking firmly into flashback status, he remembered the reason for the previous evening’s binge.
Migration season had passed, and the Zibishari prides had returned to their respective den-hives with much ceremony and celebration.
Aury requested through the retirement formality a leave of absence, was granted one, and settled into his den for deep chrysalis. He would emerge refreshed, having shed his exoskeloten. He emerged bearing an even deeper, more regal, shade of burgundy coloring than he had hoped for, and departed his den to present himself to the queen.
Approaching the hive from a distance, one could almost mistake the forested palisades for natural formations. Upon closer examination, one notices the uniformity of the cliff faces, the regularity of the tiered forestry, and then, as one nears even closer, the teeming activity at all levels at the many entrances to the hive. The first thing Aury noticed as he approached his base Hive was the absence of the usual activity. He checked the sky and noted by the relative position of the moons that he was not early—in fact, he was several days late.
The main entrance to the hive, usually rippling with activity, was nearly deserted. Aury paused at the collonaded entrance and approached a Zibishar who seemed to be standing around doing nothing. He presented himself in the traditional manner, a defensive posture followed by an untenable one. The other Yibishar ignored him and walked away. Aury’s antennae ruffled and twitched. He was amazed. The traditional greeting was never ignored. To do so was to bring tragedy to your entire family for seventy-seven generations. Aury continued on, passing only two other Yibishar as he progressed deeper into the hive. A frightening noise sounded from behind him and quickly he hid behind one of the many pillars lining the Great Hall. An object, whirring and screaming, broke the silence and whizzed past. A strange creature appeared to be trapped within it.
Aury continued on to Central Registration. The area was devoid of life. Aury signed his name in the book, and continued on to his office in the Queen’s Security Council Center only one level removed from the Queen’s chambers. Here, in the Center, he would spend the remainder of the year until the Great Migration would take them to the warmer climates which would induce Yibishar to breed. He was, officially, one of many official consorts to the Queen. In actuality, he was more of a security analyst and spent most of his time purveying security reports.
Footsteps echoed in the halls. Warily, Aury turned quickly; a hideous, pithy looking creature loomed over him. Aury began to ululate the Yibisharisti Fighting Chant and reared up into a defensive posture. His talons wrenched forth from their protected sheathings and lunged toward the foul beast. Aury fully intended to rend the intruder limbless and headless without even saying hello. It was quite frightening looking. Two eyes, two legs, two arms. The simple repetition of the number two so many times was reason enough for Aury to want to destroy it, but then their was that hollow, rancorous noise it was making at him. Like an incentive saying “go aheaad, tear me to pieces!” Aury lept at him. And bounced right off. One of the creatures appendages must have snaked out at him with lightening speed and countered his attack. Aury lept again and again he was repelled. The creature continued to make that grating noise.
“Ok,” the creature said after Aury had bounced off of it several times.
“You speak, beast.”
“Of course I do. I’m a highly civilized creature. May I help you up?” he asked as he extended a hand. Aury rolled up into a ball. When he unfurled an hour later, the creature still stood their. It looked to be on fire.
“You are burning.”
“Nono, I’m smoking a cigar,” it explained and then began making that insidious noise again.
“It smells foul. Why are you making that horrible noise at me?”
“There was nothing else to do while you went fetal on me,” he explained as he stubbed out the cigar underfoot. “That noise is called laughter. It has to do with an emotion called ‘happiness’. But listen, before I scare you again, I was sent down here to gather your security files.”
“Who are you?” asked Aury.
“You really don’t know? Geez. You must be the last person on the planet to be notified. Let me think . . . ” the Explorer tilted his silly looking head to one side and pondered carefully. “Here’s the schtick: I’m an Explorer. I come from a distant galaxy, far far away.” He lit another cigar and tilted part of his head to one side. “We come here in peace, to show the Yibishar a more convenient and self reliant lifestyle—we’re like, I dunno, like gods I guess. But we’re not. We just have a lot of scientific advances that may make us seem godlike. It’s tough, and the Yibishar don’t possess the technology, but I can be attacked and destroyed. Eventually the Yibishar will be technologically progressed and gathered into the Explorer Way, and will join us in searching the Galaxy for intelligent life,” he finished. He took off part of his head, much to Aury’s disconcertment, and waved it toward the ceiling. The Explorer noticed his trepidation and explained. “It’s a hat. A garment, something you wear. See?” He handed him the large brimmed object which Aury then turned over several times in his hands before giving it back.
“Where do I fit in?” asked Aury.
“Ummmm . . . I need those files?” Aury nodded his head succinctly, turned to his office door. and then slid back a series of levers that, when thrown in the proper sequence, unlatched the door.
“There they are.” He directed the Explorer to a row of file tablets against the wall. The Explorer then pointed an object at the files and Aury watched as they disintegrated.
“That was my life’s work! You destroyed it!”
“Nono, just gated it to Howard Space Port. We’ll probably be needing your help over the next few weeks to answer any questions we may have. Here’s my card. You can catch a cab to the Howard Shantytown and stay there until we call for you. If you have any questions, dial the number on the card and connect to Alien Security Control. It’s all on the card in Yibi and in Galactic. Have a nice day!” The creature turned and walked away. Aury stood their looking at the card. He hadn’t comprehended half of what the creature had said to him, but he was beginning to assume that much had happened in the time he had slept.
Getting dressed was a bit of a chore: his eye glass didn’t fit him anymore and everything looked fatter than it had before. He banged his head on a few things but after he managed to find his way around he began to suspect that the additional eye was indeed a blessing. His peripheral vision improved, depth perception heightened, and he imagined that he would actually be able to see further than before.
After checking out of the hotel, Aury paged a cab and waited patiently until one drifted down from the sky. The door wooshed open. As he reached for the door to pull it closed after him he entertained the sickening observation that as he reached for the door the arm he tried to use to reach for it simply wasn’t there.
“Yiyiyiyiyiyiyiiyiy—” he started to chatter in his native tongue the death chatter he had been taught as a child in hatchling school. His whole body felt like it crawled with insects one instant and numb the next. Other Yibis waiting at the platform looked at him as if he had lost his mind so he stopped, regained some composure and used one of his remaining four arms to pull down the door.
“Problem, buddy?” asked the Yibishar pilot.
“Nono. Just a small matter of growing and losing body parts.”
“Well, as long as it ain’t nothing serious. I knew a guy once who got pinched like a pimple by some heavy machinery. The sad thing was that he was alive, and they knew he would stay alive until they separated the machinery that had him all caught up, ya see? So they done brought his woman by to say goodbye, and his kids and his mawmaw and all. Damn near had a family reunion—”
“Thank-you for sharing, a lovely story, really, but I don’t think I need to hear anymore. Just take me to Howard Space Port please.”
“Ah, you’re a zonie, are ya? Should have known by them two eyes you got. You almost pass for a Zibi, you know. Why, if your shell was just a shade darker…And I can tell them antennae ain’t real . . .if you ask me they ought hire a guy like me to check over what they do over there in alien research and development—You know what them crazy space aliens are doing over there now, don’t you?”
“Please, tell me,” inquired a skeptical Aury.
“Well, I ain’t suppose to tell no one, but seeing as how we’ll all know sooner than later, I guess there be no harm in tellin you,” he confided in a near whisper. “I heard from a couple of explorers that the latest invention the Explorers are going to let us have are robots.”
“Robots? What are those?”
“They’re like little, mechanical Yibishar who will do all our work for us. I heard they can even perform surgery, cutting us open and the like to fix what’s gone wrong. I bet they could have saved that pinched guy.”
“Yes. I’m sure they could have.” Little Yibishar . . .little men? Aury felt like chattering again. He began to scratch at his skin. Skin?
“Well, here we are. That’ll be twenty, Galactic.”
“Twenty, Galactic!!!!!?” What do you take me for, a damn zonie? Do I look like some kinda Space Bopper to you?!” he demanded. The Yibishari in the front seat turned around and looked him up and down.
“Well, you sure look like an Explorer, but I don’t know, you speak Yibi better than any Explorer I done heard. A bit stuck up, like you might be one of them Nouveau rich politicians I read about, maybe you been getting some of that surgery or something. That’ll be twenty, Galactic.”
“—oh, nevermind,” Aury handed him the twenty and got out of the cab. He paused as he exited the cab and viewed the Space port sprawled before him. A series of well planned out architectural buildings lined both sides of the street. A gatehouse stood to one side of the avenue and an arch spanned the road bearing the name “Howard SPB” in large, metallic letters. Aury took a step towards the gate and as he fell forward and his face rapidly approached the pavement, he noticed that he was missing a pair of legs and that his second thorax had completely disappeared. In fact, he surmised as he lay there, his exoskeleton was feeling rather mushy and soft as well. Aury looked to the gate and remembered the trees and rolling hills which had once been here. Now they had been hacked back to a safe distance, the jungle kept at bay by stasis field pods set all along the perimeter. In the distance a space shuttle launched vertically into the sky. A twinkle and it was gone. Overhead a flight of hover-craft thundered past.
Aury stood up, brushed himself off, adjusted his now loosely fitting clothing and suddenly wondered at another appendage he seemed to have sprouted in the area where his two walking appendages met his…waist. Oh no, not one of those, too, my oh my. What is happening to me? What have they done?
He took a few hesitant steps and realized that walking wasn’t really so tough. He could even manage a little sway of his arms—he only had two left now—just like the Explorers did. Why am I coming here? he wondered to himself. It’s not like they’ll help me . . . I’m sure this is part of some plan they have to destroy our culture and takeover. They’ll just somehow transform all Zibis into bipods.
He neared the gate. As he approached, a uniformed officer stepped out of the booth. Smiling, the man stepped up to him and extended a hand. “Well, Major O’Donnel,” said the uniform. “I’m glad to see you made it back. We certainly didn’t expect you so soon. Your implants notified us of your approach. I have a car waiting.” He held out an open palm to one side and indicated a waiting car.
“Thank-you,” replied Aury. “It’s been a rough mission. I’ve obtained the information . . . Is this car secure?”
“Of course,” replied the officer. “Central Alien Investigations Office, please. And be snappy,” he directed to the driver. “This man has just come back from intensive transmogrification.” He turned to Aury. “I imagine you are tired, and a little disoriented, and would like to unload the pico-lattices as soon as possible.”
“You bet. Up until I saw you at the gatehouse I had no idea I was really a human, transmogrified into an alien transmogrifying back into a human. I really believed I was a Zippy.”
“Hehehe. How quaint,” remarked the officer politely.
“You know, they actually are amazed by miniature robots? Imagine what they would think of pico-lattice technology. Billions of subatomic energy lattices linked, working together to alter the very pattern that binds us to what we perceive as reality, changing Plankett structure of any object. What next, hehe. Right?”
“Right. What next?” the officer laughed quietly under his gloved hand.
Aury leaned back in the seat, ran his fingers through his hair, and let out a sigh. Wait a minute . . .he ran his fingers through hair again and felt the small, nubby stumps where the antennae had once sprouted. Quaint?