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December 08, 2004

Chapter Three

"How do you do that?" I asked Carl.

"Do what?" Carl asked.

"Make it speak," I said. "That's a really neat trick."

"I'm not making it speak, Tom." Carl said.

"No, I know that. I realize it's not a ventriloquist thing," I said. "What I'm asking is, how does sound come out of it at all. Jell-O doesn't strike me as the most efficient medium for sound."

"I'm not really sure about the physics of it, Tom," Carl said. "I'm an agent, not a scientist."

"This is very cool technology," I said, touching the surface of the gunk. It was sticky, and resisted my fingertips a little. "I mean, I'm not going to rush out and buy Jell-O speakers, but it's still very cool. What is it? Something from a science fiction movie? Is our client doing a film about gelatinous aliens or something?"

"Tom," Carl said. "It's not about a movie. That," he pointed to the aquarium, "is our client."

I stopped playing around with the gunk and looked over at Carl. "I'm not following you," I said.

"It's alive, Tom," Carl said.

The stuff wriggled slightly under my fingers. I pulled them back so quickly I felt a seam on my suit jacket rip. An inside seam. Near the shoulder. I had paid $400 for the jacket, and it let me down in the first moment of crisis. I focused all my mental energy on considering that jacket seam, because the only other thing to think about at the moment was that thing in the tank. The jacket seam, that I could handle.

Finally, after a few minutes, the words came, something that, I think, covered the enormity of the situation and what I was experiencing in my head.

"Holy shit," I said.

"That's a new one on me," said the aquarium gunk.

"It's just an expression," Carl said.

"Holy Christ on a pony," I said.

"So's that," Carl noted.

"Ah," said the gunk. "Listen, do you mind if I get out of this box now? I've been it all day. The right angles are killing me."

"Please," Carl said.

Thank you," said the gunk. A tendril formed off the surface of the gunk and arched towards the conference table, touching down close to the center of the table. The tendril wobbled slightly for a second, then thickened tremendously as the gunk transferred itself out of the aquarium through the tendril. When the transfer was over the tendril reabsorbed into the main body, which now sat, globular, on the conference table.

"That's much better," the gunk said.

"Carl," I said. I was keeping my distance from the gunk. "You'd really better catch me up on what's going on here."

Carl had put his feet back on the table. They rested not too far off from where the gunk was piled. That seemed a bad idea to me. "Do you want the long or short version?" He asked.

"Give me the short version for now, if you don't mind," I said.

"Fine," he said. "Tom, have a seat, please. I promise Joshua won't leap on you and suck out your brains."

"I won't," the gunk that was apparently called Joshua agreed. "I'm a good alien, not like those bad aliens that make for such good movies. Please, Tom, sit down."

I didn't know which was more fundamentally disturbing: that Jell-O was talking to me, that it had a sense of humor, or that it had better manners than I did. My body sat down in my seat; the man in my brain readied himself for a sprint to the door.

"Thank you," Carl said. "Here's the short version: About four months ago, the Yherajk, of which my friend Joshua is a member of, contacted me. The Yherajk have been watching us here on Earth for a while, and they decided recently that after several years of observation, it was time to make themselves known to humanity. But they have concerns."

"We look like snot," Joshua said. "And we smell like dead fish."

Carl nodded in Joshua's direction. "The Yherajk are worried that their physical appearance will present problems."

"We have seen The Blob, and it is us," Joshua intoned.

Another nod from Carl. "The Yherajk have decided that before they can appear to humanity, some arrangements have to be made -- a way has to be made for them not to appear so ugly from the outset."

"We need an agent to get us the role of the friendly aliens," Joshua said.

"That's the short version," Carl said.

I sat there for a second, trying to process the information. "Can I ask a question?" I said.

"Shoot," said Joshua.

I looked at Joshua and for a moment I was frozen. I didn't know what part of it to address. It all looked the same. I dealt with it by looking straight at its center. "Dumb question first: Why didn't you just drop on the lawn of the White House? I mean, in the movies, that's pretty much how it was done."

"We thought about it," Joshua said. "Then we caught the Presidential debates. The people you folks elect are sort of scary. And you Americans are the folks that do it the best on this entire planet. Besides, your president only speaks for Americans. American movies speak for your world. Who hasn't seen Wizard of Oz? Or Jaws? Or Star Wars? We've seen them, and we're not even from this planet." Joshua sprouted a tendril and tapped the table. "If you want to introduce yourself to the planet, this is the place to start."

"Okay," I said. I looked over at Carl. "The....Earjack --"

"Yherajk," Carl said, pronouncing it yee-heer-aahg-k.

"It's not our real name," Joshua said, "but you couldn't pronounce what we're actually called."

"Why not?" I asked.

"Well, for one thing, it's a smell," Joshua said. "Would you like to smell it?"

I glanced at Carl. He shrugged. "Sure," I said.

The room filled with a stench that resembled the offspring of a rotted sneaker and Velveeta. I gagged involuntarily.

"God, that's horrible," I said, and immediately regretted it. "I'm very sorry," I said. "That was probably the first ever insult to an extraterrestrial. I apologize."

"No offense taken," Joshua said, mildly. "You should come to a Yherajk get-together. It's like a convention of farts."

"I believe there was a question at the beginning of all this," Carl said.

"Right," I said, and looked back to Carl. "How many people know about the Yherajk?"

"Including you and me?" Carl said.

"Yes," I said.

"Two," Carl said. "Well, and a couple thousand Yherajk orbiting the planet. But among humans, it's just you and me."

"Wow," I said.

"It's not that hard to believe," Joshua said. "If you run out of here and say that you've just met an alien that looks like gelatin and smells like a cat in heat, who's going to believe you? All the really believable aliens have spines."

I ignored this. "Carl, why me?"

Carl tilted his head at me, and regarded me like a favored child. Which, perhaps, I was. "What do you mean?" he asked.

"I mean, I'm flattered that you picked me to help you to do...." I waved my hands around, "whatever it is that we're going to be doing here. But I don't know why you picked me."

"Well, it's like I said," Carl said. "I need someone who's smart and that I can trust."

"I appreciate that," I said. "But Carl, you don't even know me. I've worked here for five years, and every other time we've spoken, it was in meetings, about our clients and how we were going to package them. And that wasn't that often."

"Do you feel neglected?" Carl asked. "I wouldn't have pegged you for that."

"No, that's not it," I said. "It's never bothered me. That's not what I mean. What I mean is that I don't know why you feel you can trust me, or why you think I'm smart. You can, and I am, but I wouldn't have thought I'd be an obvious choice. I'm surprised you even thought of me."

Carl smirked, looked off for a second, as if communicating to an unseen audience, and then turned back to me. "Tom," he said, "give me some credit for knowing something about the people who I employ."

I straightened up slightly. "I didn't mean to offend you, Carl."

"You haven't," he said. "My point here is simply that I've been aware of you and your work for this company. Your works speaks quite a bit as to the person you are, and as for the rest of it..." he shrugged. "Sometimes you take a chance."

"Thanks," I said.

"Also, to be blunt," Carl continued, "you're just a junior agent here. You're flying under the radar. If any of the senior agents suddenly divested himself of his clients and started sneaking around, it would be noticed. There would be gossip. Infighting. Stories in Variety and the Times. No one's going to notice or care if you do the same thing."

It was my turn to smirk. "Well, my mother might be concerned."

"Does she write for the Times?" Carl said.

"I don't think so," I said. "She lives in Arizona."

"Well, then," Carl said. "That's fine with me."

"I'm still confused as to why you need me," I said. "Certainly you don't need me to put something together."

"But I do," Carl said. "Because I can't."

"Tom," Joshua said, "If it would throw the company in turmoil if one of the senior agents here dropped what they're doing to start working on a secret project, how much more suspicious is it going to look if Carl did it?"

"I can't even take a vacation without someone here attempting a palace coup," Carl said. "There's no way I'm going to be able to stop running this place to look after this. No, someone else has to deal with this thing. You've got the job."

"Carl, I don't even know what the job is," I said.

"Make me beautiful," Joshua said. "I'm ready for my closeup, Mr. DeMille."

"The Job," Carl said, implying the capital "J" with his voice, "Is to find some way to prepare the planet for the presence of the Yherajk. They're ready to show themselves to humanity, Tom. You have to make humanity ready for them."

The words hung out there in the air for a minute, not unlike, I suppose, the fragrance of a Yherajk conversation -- invisible, but very hard to ignore.

"I'm just guessing here," Joshua said, "But I'm thinking this is probably where you say 'Holy shit' again, Tom."

Posted by john at December 8, 2004 10:59 PM