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December 08, 2004

Chapter Five

"All right," I said. "Question and answer time."

"Gasp," Joshua said. "Torture me all you want. But I'll never tell you the location of the rebel base."

Joshua and I were sitting at my dining room table. More accurately, I was sitting at the table; Joshua was sitting on it. Between us was a Pizza Hut carton and the remnants of a large pepperoni pizza. Joshua had eaten four slices. They lay, haphazardly, near the center of his being. I could see the slices slowly disintegrating in an osmotic haze. It was vaguely disturbing.

"You going to eat that last piece?" Joshua said.

"No," I said, turning the carton towards him. "Please."

"Great," Joshua said. A pseudopod extended, folded around the crust edge, and withdrew back into his body. The slice was surrounded and joined its brethren. "Thanks. I haven't had anything all day. Carl thought it might be upsetting to you to see food rotting away in the middle of something that looked like dried glue."

"He was right," I said.

"That's why he's the boss," Joshua said. "Okay. Here's the rules for the question and answer period: you ask a question, then I ask a question."

"You have questions?" I asked.

"Of course I have questions," Joshua said. "From my point of view, you're the alien."

"All right."

"No lying and no evading," Joshua said. "I think we can be pretty safe with each others' secrets, because, really, who are we going to tell? Fair enough?"

"Fair enough," I said.

"Good," Joshua said. "You go first."

"What are you?" Might as well get the big one out first.

"A fine question. I'm a highly advanced and organized colony of single-celled organisms that work together on a macro-cellular level."

"What does that mean?" I asked.

"Wait your turn," Joshua said. "How did you get this place? These are nice digs."

He was right. They were nice digs. Far better than I could have afforded on my own (until today, that is) -- a four bedroom ranch on three quarters of an acre, overlooking the valley and abutting Angeles National Forest in the back. Occasionally I woke up and went out back to find a deer in the yard or a coyote digging through the trash. That passes for nature here in LA. It was just above the smog layer, too. Such are the advantages of having prosperous parents. My mother left it to me after my father died and she retired to Scottsdale, to be closer to her mother's nursing home.

The only thing that could be held against it was that it was in the wrong valley -- San Gabriel, where the "real" people (read: not in the movie business) lived. Every once in a while one of the other agents would mock me about that. I would smile sweetly and ask them what the rent was on their one-bedroom condo in Van Nuys.

"I've lived here all my life," I said. "My mom gave me the house when she moved. What does 'highly advanced and organized colony of single-celled organisms' mean?"

"It means that each of the cells in my body is a self-contained, unspecialized organism," Joshua said. "How did you decide to become an agent?"

"My dad was an agent -- a literary agent," I said. "When I was a kid, he'd bring his clients over for dinner. They were weird but fun people. I thought it was cool that my dad knew such weird people, so I decided I wanted to be an agent. I must have been about five. I had no idea what an agent really did. If you're actually a bunch of smaller creatures, how do you get them all to move and act the way you want them to?"

"I don't know," Joshua said. "Do you know how you make your heart beat?"

"Sure," I said. "My brain sends a message to my heart to keep beating."

"Right," Joshua said. "But you don't know the exact process."

"No," I said.

"Neither do I," Joshua said. "Do you have Nintendo?"

"What? No," I said. "I had an Atari when I was younger, but that was a long time ago. Do you have any organs, like a heart or a brain?"

"Not exactly," Joshua said. "The cells take turns performing functions, based on need. Right now, for example, the cells on my surface are collecting sensory information. Other cells not otherwise occupied are performing cognitive functions. The cells around the pizza are digesting it. Like I said, I don't think about doing these things, they just get done. What about cable?"

"Basic plus HBO and Spice Channel."

"Naughty boy."

"I wanted Showtime. They screwed it up. I never got around to fixing it."

"I believe you," Joshua said. "Really I do."

"Are you male or female?" I asked.

"I'm neither," Joshua said. "My cells reproduce asexually. Spice Channel will do nothing for me. Do you have a computer with an Internet connection?"

"I have a Mac and America Online," I said. "Why are you asking about these things?"

"I don't know if you've noticed, but I'm a gelatinous cube," Joshua said. "It's not like I'm going to be getting out of the house much. The neighbors would talk. So I want to make sure I'm going to be able to keep myself amused. Got any pets?"

"I had a cat, but he ran away about two years ago. I say 'ran away,' but I think he was hit by a car or eaten by coyotes. The Escobedos next door have a retriever, Ralph, that will occasionally get out of the yard and come over for a visit. I don't think you need to worry about Ralph, though. He's 15 years old. He might be able to gum you, but that's about it. Anyway, he never comes in the house. So, if your species reproduces asexually, the means you're a clone of some other Yherajk, right?"

"Eeeeeeeh....." Joshua sounded suspiciously like he was trying to evade the question. "Not exactly," he said, finally. "Our cells are asexual but we have a way of creating new....'souls' is probably the best word for it. I'd have a really difficult time explaining it to you."


"You're out of turn."

"You're evading."

"Oh. Well, in that case, let's say it's a sort of societal taboo. Asking me to talk about it would be sort of like me asking you to describe in graphic detail the sexual encounter between your parents that resulted in your conception."

"It was during their honeymoon in Cancun," I said.

"What position did they use? How many thrusts did it take? Did your mom bark in pleasure?"

I reddened. "I think I see what you're saying."

"I thought you might," Joshua said. "Speaking of which -- any brothers or sisters?"

"No," I said. "Mom had complications during the pregnancy and nearly died. They thought about adopting for a while but they decided against it. Can you die?"

"Sure," Joshua said. "More ways than you can, too. Individual cells in this collection die all the time, like cells in your body die. The whole collection can die, too -- I'd say we're probably less prone to random death than your species is, but it happens. The soul can also die, even if the collection survives. You in a relationship?"

"No. I had a girlfriend at the agency for a while, but she took a job in New York about six months ago. It wasn't very serious, anyway -- more of a tension release thing. How long do you live?"

"Three score and ten, just like you," Joshua said. "More or less. It's actually a very complicated question. Do you like your job?"

"Most of the time," I said. "I don't know. I think I'm good at it. And I don't know what else I'd do if I wasn't doing this. What's your spaceship like?"

"Crowded. Smelly. Poorly lit. What do you when you're not working?"

"I'm pretty much always working. When I'm not, I read a lot. Got that from being the son of a literary agent. When my mother moved out, I made my old room into a library. Other than that, I don't do too much. I'm sort of pathetic. How do you know so much about us?"

"What do you mean?" Joshua said.

"Your English is as good as mine. You know about stuff like Nintendo and cable television. You make references to 50s horror films. You seem to know more about us than most of us do."

"No offense, but it's not that hard being smarter than most of you folks," Joshua said. "Your planet's been broadcasting a bunch of stuff for the better part of the last century. We've been paying attention to a lot of it. You can actually learn English from watching situation comedies several thousand times."

"I don't know how to feel about that," I said.

"There are some gaps," Joshua allowed. "Until I actually got down here, we were under the impression 'groovy' was still current. It's all those 'Brady Bunch' reruns. For the longest time it never really occurred to us that they weren't live broadcasts. We thought that the repetition had some ritual significance. Like they were religious texts or something."

"I'd think the fact that the Brady Bunch never aged might have been a tip-off."

"Don't take this wrong," Joshua said, "But you all pretty much look the same to us. Anyway, we figured it out eventually. My turn."


The question and answer session went on for another couple of hours, with me asking larger, cosmic questions, and Joshua asking smaller, personal questions. I learned that the Yherajk spaceship was a hollowed-out asteroid that traveled at slower-than-light speeds, and that it had taken them decades to travel from their home planet to here. Joshua learned that my favorite color was green. I learned that Yherajk-to-Yherajk communication most often took the form of complex pheromone "ideographs" launched into the air or passed on through touch: the "speaker" was identified with an identifier molecule -- his own personal smell. Joshua learned that I preferred eurotrash dance music to American guitar rock and roll.

At the end of it, I knew more about the Yherajk than any other person on the planet, and Joshua knew more about me than any other person on the planet. I ended up thinking that Joshua had somehow gotten the better end of that bargain; there was only one other person who knew about Joshua, after all. But presumably a lot of other people knew about me.

Only one question remained unanswered: how Joshua got his name. He refused to tell me.

"That's not fair," I said. "You said no lying or evading."

"This is the exception that proves the rule," Joshua said. "Besides, it's not my story to tell. You need to ask Carl how it came about. Now," he executed a maneuver that looked very much like a stretch after a long bout of sitting, "Where is that computer of yours? I want to sign in. I want to see how much junk e-mail I have."

I led him to my home office, where my computer was; he slithered onto the seat, glopped himself onto the keyboard, and shot out a tendril to the mouse. I was mildly worried that parts of him might get stuck in my keyboard. But when he moved from the table on the way to the office, he didn't leave any slime trails. Chalk one up for my upholstery. I figured my keyboard would be okay. I left him to clack away on AOL and headed out to the back porch.

My backyard was sloped up into the mountainside and heavily wooded in the back. It was on slightly higher ground than the adjoining houses' backyards -- something I appreciated greatly when I was 13 and Trish Escobedo next door would lay out next to her pool. I settled into my usual chair, which looked out onto the Escobedo backyard -- Trish was now married and hadn't lived there for nearly 12 years, but old habits died hard. On the way out, I had pulled a beer from the fridge; I twisted off the top and sat back to look up at the stars.

I was thinking about Joshua and the Yherajk. Joshua was an immediate problem -- very smart, very amusing, very liquid, and, I was beginning to suspect, very prone to boredom. I was giving him a week before he went off his rocker in the house. I was going to have to figure some way of getting him out of the house on an occasional basis; I didn't know what a bored Yherajk was like but I didn't aim to find out. Priority one: field trips for Joshua.

The Yherajk were a less immediate but infinitely more complicated problem -- alien globs who want to befriend a humanity that, if asked, would probably prefer to be befriended by something with an endoskeleton. The only thing that possibly could have been worse were if the Yherajk looked like giant bugs: that would have turned the half of humanity already afraid of spiders and roaches into insane gibbering messes. Maybe that was the way to go: "The Yherajk -- At Least They're Not Insects." I glanced back up at the stars and wondered idly if one of them was the Yherajk asteroid ship.

I heard a scratching at the side gate. I went over to unlatch it; Ralph, the World's Oldest Retriever, was on the other side, huffing slightly. His tail was wagging feebly and he was looking up at me with a tired doggie grin as if to say, I got out again. Not bad for an old fart.

I liked Ralph. The youngest Escabedo kid, Richie, had graduated from college and moved out about two years ago, and I suspected since then Ralph didn't get that much notice; Esteban, who owned a mainframe software company, didn't have the time, and anyone could tell that Mary just wasn't a dog person. He was fed but ignored.

Richie used to drop by every now and then with Ralph; he was only a few years younger than I was, and for a while had been thinking about becoming an agent before he got nervous and went pre-law instead. After Richie moved out, Ralph would keep dropping by. I think I reminded him of times when someone was around to pay attention to him. I didn't mind. Ralph didn't want anything other than to be around somebody else. He's like a lot of old folks that way. Eventually Estaban or Mary would realize he was gone and would come over to get him. Ralph would look at me sadly and follow the one or the other home. A week later he'd get bored and the cycle would repeat.

I headed back to the patio. Ralph shuffled along at my feet and sat next to me when I got to my chair. I knuckled him on the head gently , and returned my thoughts to the Yherajk situation.

For some reason, a memory of my childhood popped into my head: my father, Daniel Stein, sitting at the dining room table with Krysztof Kordus, a Polish poet who had been sent to a concentration camp during the World War II after he, a Catholic, had been caught trying to smuggle Jews out of Poland. Late in life he had emigrated to America, and he hoped that he would be able to publish his poems in English.

I eventually read the poems when I was in college. They were terrible and beautiful: terrible in their themes of holocaust and death, beautiful because they somehow managed to find moments of hope in the shadow of that terrifying destruction. I remember feeling the need to go out into the sun after reading them, crying because for the first time I was made to understand what happened.

I had had relatives who had died in the Holocaust: great aunts and uncles on my mother's side. My own grandmother had been in a work camp when the war ended. But she would never talk about it while I was growing up, and then she had a stroke that took away her ability to speak. It wasn't until Krysztof's poems that the story was brought home to me.

The night Krysztof and my father sat at our dining room table, however, Krysztof had received yet another rejection letter for his book. He sat raging at my father, for not being able to sell the book, and at the publishers, for not buying the book.

"You have to understand," My dad said to Krysztof, "Hardly anyone buys books of poetry anymore."

"I understand shit," Krysztof said, thumping the table. "This is what I do. These poems are as good as any you will find in the bookstore. Better. You must be able to convince someone to buy these, Daniel. That is what you do."

"Krysztof," my father said, "The bottom line is that no one is going to publish these poems right now. If you were Elie Wiesel, you could sell these poems. But you're nobody here. No one knows you. No publisher is going to throw money away publishing poems that no one's going to read."

That set Krysztof off for another ten minutes on the stupidity of my father, the publishing world, and the American people in general, for not recognizing genius when it sat arrayed before them. Dad sat there calmly, waiting for Krysztof to take a breath.

When he did, my dad jumped in. "You're not listening to what I'm saying, Krysztof," he said. "I know these poems are masterworks. That's not in dispute. The problem is not the poems, it's you. No one knows who you are."

"Who cares about me," Krysztof said. "The poems, they speak for themselves."

"You're a great man, Krysztof," my father said. "But you know diddly about the American public." And then my father told Krysztof a plan that would thereafter be known as The Trojan Horse.

The plan was simple. In order to sell Krysztof's poems, people had to know who Krysztof was first. Dad accomplished this by convincing Krysztof, after much arguing and protestations of humiliation, to take a lullaby that he had written decades earlier to amuse his daughter, and publish it as a children's book. The book, The Dreamers and the Sleepers, sold millions, much to Krysztof's horror and my father's delight.

During the publicity tour for the book, Krysztof's Holocaust story was splashed across the features pages of every large and mid-sized daily in the country. From that, my father was able to wrangle a made-for-television movie on Krysztof's story out of CBS. It was the most widely-watched television show that month. Krysztof was embarrassed (he was played by Lee Majors) but also both rich and famous.

"There," my dad said. "Now we can sell your book of poems." And he did.

I needed a Trojan Horse. There had to be some back door way to slip the Yherajk through, like my dad did with Krysztof. But I had no idea what it was. It's one thing to sell a book of poems. It's another thing entirely to introduce a planet to the thing they've hoped for and feared for the last century.

The doorbell rang. Ralph looked at me sadly. I patted his flank gently, and then we went to answer the door.

Posted by john at December 8, 2004 11:01 PM