Service With A Smile
Gary Burgin sat up and rubbed his aching chin. The purple Turquani who'd just decked him didn't look back as it oozed back into its ship.
Seconds later, the spacecraft screamed into the cloudless Kansas sky, drowning out the Rolling Stones blasting from Gary's decaying lemon-yellow pick up.
"Okay," Gary said. "I probably deserved that."
He stood, dusted off the seat of his worn jeans and looked for witnesses. He hated it when aliens came in their own ships like that. Much safer to park on the back side of the moon and use the matter transmitter in his barn.
"How was I supposed to know it wanted to probe, not get probed?"
Reaching into his truck, Gary turned down the stereo and pulled a small bag from the glove box. At least the Turquani had paid half up front. He slipped the gold into the front pocket of his jeans then climbed into the driver's seat, slamming the door behind him.
He sighed and closed his eyes. No matter what kind of spin he put on the Turquani visit, things hadn't gone well. Hell, things'd been going poorly for the last few months. If he had to hear Arlene Reynolds talk about selling his land for Nearly County to use as a mall one more time, his head might explode.
Thinking about Arlene and the Board of Selectmen's plans led to thoughts of the paperwork piled up next to the fridge, and that thought led kinda naturally to what was inside the fridge. He could almost taste that cold beer.
He started the truck and backed down the dry track to the farmhouse. Even after three years living out in the ass-end of nowhere, he still couldn't get used to all the green. Corn oughtta come from the grocery, not from dirt.
He hated to shell out the money to put those plants into the ground and then yank 'em out, but he had to keep up appearances. It was hard enough to find people so dim they could work on his farm without asking any nosy questions. Hiring on help competent enough to bring in a successful crop? Not a chance.
The truck rattled along the narrow road for a few minutes before the farmhouse came into view. It had seen better decades. Once white, Gary's home now looked like a haunted house inflicted with inorganic leprosy.
The barn, off to the left, was another matter. Its wooden slats fit together tighter than a drunk's grip on the night's last Bud. It was good for keeping secrets.
Gary parked the truck and headed for the house. Hopping over the loose third step, he trudged onto the porch and opened the door to the little refrigerator there. He tossed the bag with the gold into the freezer compartment. Gary grabbed a cold Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and sprawled onto the creaking swing. Using the bottle opener hanging from the swing's chain, he popped the top.
Gary stretched out, his worn boot heels crossed, and leaned back against the swing cushions. He glugged down his first swallow and had just started his second when the incoming message alarm started blaring.
"Damn it." Gary swiped at the beer spew on his shirt and shuffled into the house.
Rubbing at his forehead, Gary stood in front of a seascape painting that featured sad-eyed mermaids. He spread his fingers across the wooden frame, finding the right knots, and tried to enter the combination. After three tries and the invention of four unique curse words, the seascape dissolved into a neutral brown color.
And blessed silence -- for about two seconds.
"Burgin!" The translated voice blasted into the room and the image of a snarling face coalesced within the frame. The alien's brilliant purplish-red color was its normal hue as far as Gary knew, but the twitching antennae, the glowing compound eyes and the non-stop mandible clacking were new.
"Hello, Knadon." Brazening it out seemed the best way to go.
"I received a communication from Eeoania Eeoania, the Turquani who booked a three-week visit there on Earth."
"Yes. And?" Brazen, brazen.
"The Turquani don't even have an excretory orifice to probe and, yet, somehow you managed."
"Improvisation, Chief. I worked with what he had."
Gary got the impression that, had his boss not been enclosed in a chitinous exoskeleton, the face in the screen would have exploded right about then.
"Eeoania Eeoania is a senior aide's second assistant to a high-ranking member of the Turquani sub-delegation to the Pan-Species Conference. It could shut us down."
"Um, Chief? I thought it was illegal for you boys to be down here. How's he gonna make trouble without getting himself into hot water?"
Gary felt a smidgen of triumph during the few silent seconds that followed.
"There are numerous ways it could cause trouble. Your uncle would never have -- "
"My uncle," Gary said, "was never the most, ah, aggressive of hosts. The bookings have gone through the roof since I took over."
"Yes, the numbers have risen. Slightly. However, it barely offsets the additional costs incurred by you charging for the service. Your uncle --"
Gary sighed loudly and ran a hand through his thick red hair.
"Again, I am not my uncle. He was a great man, but he ran himself into the ground working this farm and escorting your visitors for free."
"The Turquani makes the fourth complaint in the past triune," Knadon said. "If I get one more, you're out."
"What do you mean out?"
Knadon's antennas vibrated up and down, and Gary wished he knew how to read his boss's body language.
"There are other unopened planets out here. I will not be shut down because of an incompetent host. One more complaint and I remote-destruct your mattermitter. The resulting radioactive slag will render your habitat sterile for years."
"My operation spans tens of worlds. You have only one. Who has the most to lose?"
Gary's mouth gaped open in the choked silence.
"Precisely," Knadon said. "Your next clients arrive soon. Escort them. Protect them. Do not probe them."
The image flared a brilliant white, before shrinking to a small dot in the middle of the frame. With the connection terminated, the mermaids came back and smirked at him.
"Sonofabitch." After three circuits around his living room, Gary realized wearing more holes in the threadbare carpet wouldn't do any good. He flopped into his recliner, kicked back and thumbed the TV remote, hoping to find something to take his mind off Knadon and botched visitations.
The fifty-six-inch plasma screen blinked on and the speakers mounted on either side of the chair blared to life. Gary flipped through Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., and Men in Black before he clicked over to music. He didn't need that kind of a reminder.
What he needed was the escort work. There was no way he could make money off the farm, even if he wanted to work that hard. How had his uncle done it for so long? When Gary had lucked into Uncle Barnard's will, he hadn't expected to end up running an outlaw tourist agency for aliens, but once he got used to the idea, he'd seen the possibilities.
It was reaching those possibilities that was killing him. He'd been alone just about forever, living paycheck to paycheck, and he hadn't had much experience in advance planning, much less planning for other people. Beings. Aliens, whatever. Maybe --
The doorbell rang once, groaned and then died, a tiny wisp of smoke curling up from the mechanism. Gary didn't bother getting up. There wasn't anyone he wanted to see. He wished he'd gone ahead and bought the recliner with the fridge attached.
Whoever was out there started pounding on the door, shaking the weathered frame. Gary grabbed his head and groaned.
He got up and shuffled to the front door, yanked it open and snarled out, "What?"
The woman standing outside stole Gary's breath every time he saw her. Arlene Reynolds stood five-foot-eight-inches tall and weighed about one hundred sixty pounds. Her dark blonde hair was done up in a ponytail, baring perfect hazel eyes. She would have been Gary's perfect woman, if only she didn't hate him.
Hell, it wasn't his fault an unscheduled vacation party of Klach*pok had materialized in the barn just as he was leaving for their first date.
Every time he'd seen her after that, the unfairness of it all grated on him. Since then, all he got from Arlene was cold contempt and it was about to drive him nuts.
Gary swung the door shut, only to have it bounce off her foot. Gary gritted his teeth when he saw the discreet Star Trek insignia tattooed on her right ankle.
Trekkies have no idea.
"Hello there, Mr. Burgin," she said.
"It's Gary, Arlene, not Mr. Burgin."
Arlene, keeping her foot in the doorway, turned her head and stared at the weed-infested cornfield. She turned back to Gary, a look of pity on her face.
"Sad-looking crop you've got there, Mr. Burgin. Doesn't look good for you. Have you given any more consideration to the town's offer?"
Gary figured she raced from subject to subject like that so the person she was talking to couldn't get away.
"No, Arlene. I try not to think about that at all. My uncle --"
"Mr. Burgin, really. You never knew your uncle. You only inherited the farm because you were his last living relative."
"Arlene, look, I'm sorry I stood you up. If you'd give me another chance, forget all about trying to take away my land, I'm sure--"
Arlene sighed and tucked a stray strand of hair back over her left ear.
"Mr. Burgin, this has nothing to do with the. . . other thing. Your property would make a lovely new mall. That's it. You've got no attachment to this place, so why not sell?"
"I do so love this place," Gary said. "The planting. And the thing where you take the stuff out of the ground. The --"
"Harvesting, Mr. Burgin. It's called harvesting."
"I, uh, I knew that."
"Of course you did. What with your disinterest in farming, I'd think you'd be happy to sell."
Gary crossed his arms and glared.
"I'll come to my point then," Arlene said. "The selectmen are ready to declare this project vital to the town's economic future. That leads to two words, Mr. Burgin. Those words are eminent and domain."
"Eminent domain. It means the town can take the land and pay you off whether you want to sell or not."
"That's crazy talk," Gary said. "This is my land. You can't take --"
A hideous bleeping sounded from inside the house and all the color drained out of Gary's face. He kicked at Arlene's foot, gently at first, then more rapidly.
"Go, go, go. You gotta leave. Bye-bye, now."
"What is --"
"Arlene, please go. The, um, stove timer--"
Her arms crossed over her chest, Arlene's body was outlined in the fading red glow of sunset. It softened her curves even more, lending her a pastel vibrancy that caused massive misfires in his brain. The bleeping from inside the house shot up in volume and tore Gary from his reverie.
"Really nice to see you again, but you gotta go. Now. Okay?"
Arlene peered into the house a final time before she turned to leave. She looked back over her shoulder, opened the door to her sensible, brown Accord and slid in. Gary's heart shuddered at her sad, little smile.
"Time is running out, Mr. -- Gary. Please think about it. "
"Right, right, okay," he said, waving maniacally as she drove away.
Her Accord wasn't even out of sight before he sprinted toward the barn, leaving the door open behind him. He didn't make it in time. A bright green flash leaked from the barn, spilling an instant of light onto the grounds.
He fumbled a set of keys from his pants pocket, inserted them into the lock and heaved the barn door open. A confusing babble sounded from the boarded-off section of barn behind the ramshackle harvester. Gary raced past the machinery and skidded to a stop next to a second, smaller door.
This door required a bit more attention. Gary pressed his bare palm to a slightly smoother section of the wooden wall. He suffered impatiently through the biometric reading, the DNA comparison scan and the -- recently installed -- blood-alcohol monitor. The less said about that the better.
The lock clicked open and Gary stepped inside. He stopped with one foot in the room, his mouth hanging open, and stared at the new visitors. The three gray beings each stood a little under four feet tall. Black, teardrop-shaped eyes dominated their huge heads, with tiny nostril slits and a small mouth underneath. Their pipe-stem legs hardly seemed strong enough to hold them upright. And they were naked -- not that they had much of anything to hide.
Gary'd seen aliens of every description in the last three years, but he'd become convinced Little Gray Men were just a massive delusion concocted by kooks with strange sexual fetishes and way too much free time.
"Welcome to Earth," he said, stepping forward. "I'm your guide, Gary Burgin."
He snuck a quick look at the documentation flashing on the side of the matter transmitter. Good. The Yetzlanin were only down for an overnighter. Gary planned to shuffle them off quickly and then find out what the hell eminent domain meant to him.
"I assume ya'll got the translator applications?"
"Yes," the aliens said. They spoke the word at the same time and with the same intonation. It sounded to Gary like one person speaking out of three mouths.
"I am Ken," they all said, but the one on the left raised its hand. The translator applications always had problems with names and usually ended up assigning random words to Gary's clients.
"I am Bridge." The one in the middle shuffled forward.
"I am Gerbil." The third little gray raised its hand.
"Do you... Do you always talk like that? All together?" Gary asked.
"We are linked now, the better to encounter a wide variety of experience. Our parents discourage linking before we reach maturity, but it's too *untranslatable*."
"Kids," Gary moaned. "What am I gonna do with kids?"
The Yetzlanin crowded closer to Gary, backing him up toward the door.
"Probe," they said. "We wish to probe."
A future of hard, nasty, boring work flashed behind Gary's eyes.
"Of course that's what they want." Gary knew a few women of... negotiable willingness... up in the city who didn't mind a little blindfolded experimentation. They had always been open to putting on a little play for his previous guests, but alien kids?
Seven bad ideas flashed through Gary's brain in the span of several seconds. Most of those he rejected quickly. The one about the accident -- nothing too serious or fatal -- stayed with him while he tried to work out the details. Eventually, he decided he didn't know enough to pull it off.
Gary needed more time to think. He motioned the Yetzlanin forward and walked them to the farmhouse. Every third step, Gary almost tripped and fell when the Yetzlanin stopped to marvel at some piece of crap or other. Thank God the last of the twilight had leaked from the sky.
He crossed the porch and flipped on the lights. It was a toss up as to who screamed louder, the Yetzlanin or Gary.
Little gray hands flew to cover large eyes as the aliens jumped back to the dimness of the porch. Gary's scream trailed off into a sort of surprised moan and ended with him slumped and slouching as he stared into his house.
Arlene perched on the edge of Gary's recliner, the overhead light casting long shadows across her face. She set Gary's portable phone on the floor and arched an eyebrow at him.
"My car died right down the road, so I came back here to get some help. I tried to use my cell phone, but your farm must be a dead zone. Anyway, your door was open so I thought it would be all right to come in."
Gary inhaled and willed his body to expand enough to completely block the doorway. He tried to smile. He had a feeling it wasn't working.
Gary slid to his right and turned a bit so he could quickly brush six grey fingers away from the doorjamb.
"Bugs," he said, when he turned back and found Arlene watching his hand twitch against the doorjamb.
Arlene stood and craned her neck to her left, trying to worm her gaze between Gary and the door. His right foot jerked to the side, bringing a muffled thump from outside.
"I don't really understand what happened." Her voice trailed off while she walked a couple of steps closer. Her eyes narrowed.
Great. Unless they were specially shielded, like his house and car, most gizmos got fried by the electromagnetic pulse from the matter transmitter. Knadon had told him that was why they located the station away from population centers. Arlene's car must have been too close.
His cheeks hurt from keeping up the phony grin, but Gary managed to crank a couple more watts out of it and gestured with his left hand toward the kitchen.
"Why don't we go get some iced tea and call Triple A? There's a phone in the --"
Arlene's eyes widened and her lower jaw decided to see what all the fuss was about down near her collarbone.
She pointed a shaky finger to his right. His stomach sinking to new depths, Gary looked down. Six large, black eyes peered out of three gray faces at around chest height. Gary improvised.
"My, my. . . nephews? They're-- Halloween? School play? They're in a school play and wanted to show me their costumes."
Ken, Bridge and Gerbil pushed their way into the house and stared at Arlene. When eyes that big start staring, it's probably not a good thing.
"Proooobe," the aliens intoned.
"--ation. Probation," Gary said, stepping between Arlene and the aliens. "Their mom put them on probation before coming over here to make sure they behaved. Right?"
Arlene stared right back at the Yetzlanin, her mouth opening and closing.
"Costumes?" Gary said, with what he hoped was a convincing tone of voice.
"Those are not costumes. They... Oh. My. God." Her gaze shivered onto Gary's face. "They're aliens. Aren't they? Real, live aliens."
"No, no, no. They're kids, really. I don't--"
Gary broke off when he felt something brush by his shoulder. He looked over and saw Gerbil, or possibly Ken, floating three feet off the ground. So much for that. You could only brazen things out for so long when the obvious kept slapping people in the face with a dead mackerel.
"Yeah, all right. They're aliens. And no," he said, putting his hand in front of the Yetzlanin closing rapidly on Arlene, "you can't probe her."
"*Untranslatable*," said Ken.
"*Untranslatable*," Bridge said.
"Shucks," Gerbil said.
"I can barely breathe," Arlene said. "I've waited all my life for this."
Arlene held her right hand out, palm forward and opened a gap between her middle and ring fingers.
"Peace," she said. "Live lo--"
"No, uh-uh," Gary said. He might have to put up with the aliens, but no way was he going to give in to a Trekkie. "None of that."
Bridge stepped forward and raised its right hand, fingers spread, palm forward.
"We love that show," the three said.
And they were off. Arlene and the Yetzlanin sat on the rug and chatted like long-lost friends. Sometime after the first ten minutes, while Arlene and Ken -- or possibly Bridge -- debated the relative merits of logic over emotion, Gary wandered into the kitchen for support.
He had just popped the top on a Sierra Nevada when he heard Arlene speak up.
"I'll take one of those too."
Gary leaned into the fridge, did a quick count, and figured he could probably spare a couple of bottles out of the case of beer sharing space with the wilted lettuce, rancid sandwich meat and cans of Coke. He handed Arlene a beer and tried to return the flashbulb smile she gave him. His face felt all wrong. He hadn't smiled a genuine smile in so long, it felt like he'd forgotten how. He settled for scowling, sat back into his recliner and watched Arlene and the aliens.
She made it look so easy. Hell, Gary'd been dealing with aliens for years and he didn't have half the easy way with them Arlene did. Maybe it was her enthusiasm? Maybe she was smarter than him? He needed to talk to Arlene about lending a hand. Maybe working together might actually make her forget she hated him. He scooted forward in his chair to get her attention, but, before he could even open his mouth, Bridge pointed to Arlene's beer bottle.
"What is that?"
"Beer," she said. "It's an, uh, intoxicant."
"Aaahhh," they said and looked at each other. "We know that."
Gary watched Ken reach forward. Something. . . strange. . . happened near the end of its fingertips and then it grasped three flat, square objects. The alien gave one object each to Ken and Gerbil, who stuck it to their abdomens.
The giggle quotient increased dramatically shortly thereafter.
The Sierra Nevadas lasted for about two hours. Gary looked blearily from his watch to the last full bottle. Surely he and Arlene couldn't have dranken, drinkin, drunk, whatever, that many.
And that was when he heard Arlene mention cow tipping.
Gary was pretty sure he tried to talk them out of knocking over sleeping cows, but they were all so. . . enthusiastic.
The pounding in Gary's head forced him near to wakefulness, despite his best efforts. He cracked open one eyelid enough to confirm, yes, the house really was spinning, before exhaustion dragged him to sleep.
Shoulder pain nudged him awake with all the subtlety of a charging bull. Charging bull? Why did that sound so familiar? What in God's name had he been. . . He suddenly remembered hearing an angry moo and several high-pitched giggles.
Oh, God. They really had gone cow tipping. Had he actually knocked over three cows all by himself? No wonder his shoulder hurt.
Gary moaned and tried to roll over.
"So, you're finally awake."
"Not so loud," he whispered. "Please, Arlene, have mercy."
He jack-knifed into a sitting position and immediately regretted it. Gary clutched his head and prayed for death, but it couldn't come soon enough. He squinted against the blinding dimness in the shuttered room and saw Arlene standing in the doorway to the kitchen. Her hair hung loose, falling over her shoulder. She wore one of his old t-shirts and a pair of his pajama bottoms.
For a moment, Gary forgot all about his body trying to kill him and just stared.
"What are you looking like that for, Gary? I'd have thought a night on the floor would cure you of that."
"You look great." He blurted it out before he could stop himself.
Arlene looked down and blushed. She glided into the living room and sat down on his recliner, folding her legs underneath. She still didn't look at him.
"You must still be drunk if you're talking like that again," she said. "I guess the little gray guys were right about that, too."
"Guys? What-- Oh, crap. Where are the Yetzlanin?"
Arlene looked up, puzzled.
"The aliens," he said. "Where are they?"
He scrambled to his feet before he had an answer. Gary could hear Knadon screaming already. So much for the easy life. Hell, he thought, so much for the farm. He needed to pack. Get the bank book, safe deposit key, those old comic books up in the attic. . . Who knew when Knadon would push the button?
"So that's what they're called. You know, I never asked them. Anyway, you can relax. They said they had to get home and showed me how to help. I hope you don't mind. The doors to that transporter thing were already unlocked."
She was lying. She had to be. The barn was the most secure building on the farm. He wasn't that irresponsible. No way would he. . . leave the. . . doors open to get three Little Gray Men out as quickly as possible. Oh, God, he was an idiot.
But what about his payment? He groped at his pants pocket and couldn't find any more gold. A grim paranoia rushed through his brain. Arlene was out to get him, using her feminine wiles to --
"I put the gold the guys on your table there. That's okay, isn't it?"
"I, uh. . ." The pounding in his head lowered to merely catastrophic levels for two seconds until the seascape painting started bleeping. Pure habit forced Gary to pretend nothing unusual was happening. Deliberate ignorance apparently didn't go over well with Arlene.
"Aren't you going to answer your painting?"
Gary staggered over, wishing he had some way to mute his life. He sighed in relief when he activated the painting after only two false starts.
Knadon's image faded in and Gary heard Arlene gasp behind him.
The being's fire-red coloring was muted to a pale rose. Maybe this was what it looked like when it was time to crush someone's dreams and jump up and down on the battered body.
Glancing to his side, Gary saw Arlene staring at the video image. Her eyes sparkled like stars.
"Yes, Sir?" he mumbled.
"I hate to say this, Burgin, but. . . good job."
"Really, I don't know what happened. I'm so sorry about -- What?"
Knadon's antenna created slow sine waves above its head.
"The Yetzlanin were quite pleased. Keep up the good work and we'll keep you on."
It isn't easy to tell what direction compound eyes are looking, but Gary felt like he could do it this time. Of course, it had to be Arlene.
"Ah," Knadon said. "This must be Arlene Reynolds, the new partner the Yetzlanin told me about. I wish you had informed me about this, but I'm glad to see it's working out well. Don't let this praise swell your cognitive spaces, Burgin. You're still on probation, but. . . you did well. Your next escort job should be there in about one of your weeks. Don't screw up."
There was no sound in the house as the sad-eyed mermaids faded back into existence. Gary couldn't seem to get his brain working.
"Soda pop?" Arlene asked. "You look like you could use one."
When Arlene returned from the kitchen, he grabbed the glass and gulped down half the Coke in one go, sighing as the caffeine spread its love through his body. Gary didn't turn away from the painting before speaking.
"You don't think I'm going anywhere after last night, do you? There's no way I'm leaving."
Gary took a deep breath and tried to slow his thudding heart. He wanted -- hell, needed -- help, but he realized he also needed Arlene. He'd never had so much on the line before and it all depended on his being a smooth talker. He was doomed. Gary turned around anyway.
"Arlene, I, I don't want a partner."
Her face set into a look of grim determination and Gary knew he'd screwed up again.
"What? I'd be a big asset around here."
Gary held his hand up, took another deep breath and tried again.
"No. I didn't say that right. I don't want only a partner. It's just -- look at you. You're beautiful and smart and organized and a natural with aliens. I know I need help around here. But I want to-- No. I need to know I might have a chance at something more. Will you at least give me a chance?"
He thought back over what he said and interrupted before Arlene could reply.
"And don't think this is some kind of blackmail, or something. If you won't give me a chance, I'll still let you stay on here to work. It's only I needed to get this out in the open. Try to be smart for once.
"I mean, this kind of thing is why I had to stand you up. I didn't want to, but I had customers, see?"
He stood there, his arms hanging loose at his side. Beads of sweat rolled down his back. He lowered his head and stared into the half-full glass of Coke.
She reached out and gently grasped his free hand. He couldn't make himself look into her eyes and found himself staring at her Star Trek tattoo.
"Gary, there's a lot of things I think need to be said, but, right now-- Yes, I want to be your partner here. And, yes, I'll give us a chance, but only a chance. Consider yourself on probation."
Gary found himself smiling -- an actual, genuine smile -- and couldn't stop. He squeezed her hand and looked up into her eyes.
"So, does this mean we got a chance to go where no man has gone before?"
Arlene snorted and said, "I thought you didn't like Star Trek?"
"Well," he said as he stepped a little closer to Arlene, "a man can learn. Right?"