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December 08, 2004

Chapter Seven

"When I said I wanted to get out of the house, this wasn't what I was thinking of," Joshua said.

Joshua, Ralph and I were at the edge of the Big Dalton Canyon reservoir, a tiny, out-of-the-way clot of water in the foothills. It was a weekday, so no one was likely to be around during the day. I had a fishing rod. I didn't know if the reservoir had been stocked with fish, but I figured today was a good a day as any to find out.

"What were you thinking of, Joshua?" I asked.

"I don't know," he said. He had a pseudopod half-in, half-out of the water, as if testing how cold the water was. "I was thinking maybe a drive-in movie."

"There's a drive-in over in Azusa," I said. "I don't know if they still show movies, though. I think it's all a flea market now."

Joshua finally slid all the way into the water, and floated on the top like an oil slick. "Well, let's try it, anyway. Get a big tub of popcorn, too. Get really sick on the artificial butter flavoring."

I zinged the fishing line into the reservoir. "As if you know anything about artificial butter flavoring."

"Hey," Joshua said. "I'm open to the experience. I've never vomited. It could be fun. So can we go?"

"Sure," I said. "We'll have to go after it's already dark, though. I don't want anyone to see you."

"If I understand it correctly, people don't actually go to drive-in movies to watch the movies," Joshua said. "If they're not watching the movies, what's the chance they're going be to watching us?"

Ralph, who had been pacing the edge of the water, barked towards Joshua. Joshua quivered for a second, then shot an arc of water at Ralph, who took it broadside on the flank. He reared up slightly, barked again, and then charged into the water after Joshua. They splashed around with each other for several minutes. It was the happiest I'd seen Ralph be in years.

Ralph and Joshua became friends earlier in the week. The day I had taken a sledgehammer to Tea, I had come home and opened the front door to find Joshua and Ralph having a tug-of-war with one of my dress shirts in the front corridor. Ralph was winning due to the fact that he had both teeth and paws; Joshua, lacking much in the way of traction on the waxed hardwood floor, was skidding around like a large gelatin fruit cup. Ralph was about to take off out the door, Joshua in tow. I shut the door quickly.

"What are you doing with my shirt?" I had said.

"I'm sorry," Joshua had said. "It wasn't your favorite, was it? We were just playing."

"How did Ralph get in?" I had asked.

"I went out back, and then he showed up and followed me in," Joshua had said. "Can we keep him?"

Ralph, winded, barked once and collapsed happily on the wood.

I sent Ralph home later that night but he came back almost immediately, and went looking for Joshua. It was kind of a cute scene: a dog and his gelatinous boy. When Esteban came to get him again, I told him I wouldn't mind looking after Ralph for a few days. Esteban went away, looking palpably relieved. I hadn't seen him since. I had the vague suspicion I had just assumed ownership of a dog.

Personally I would have assumed that the sight of a mobile lump of goo would have blown Ralph's little doggie mind, but watching him goof with Joshua in the water, it was clear he was handling it pretty well, better than most humans would. I mentioned that to Joshua.

"That's because Ralph and I speak the same language," Joshua said, oozing back towards the shore with Ralph.

"What do you mean?" I said. "I'm not hearing any barking coming out of you."

"I'm talking about smells," he said. "Ralph's wired for that sort of information, you know. He's a retriever. It took me about an hour to figure out what smells he pays attention to. Now we've got a pretty good working vocabulary."

"So you can actually talk to Ralph?" I said.

"Of course not," Joshua said. "He's a dog, Tom."

"But you just said you had a working vocabulary with him."

"Sure, but so do you. I've heard you talk to him. He understands a few of those words. Doesn't mean you're talking nuclear physics. But I do speak better to him than you do. He understands smells better than words. And since that's the way I usually talk anyway, it's easier for me to speak to him than it is to you -- isn't that right, Ralph?"

Ralph, back on shore, barked.

"What's that you say, Ralph? Little Timmy's fallen down a well and needs help?"

Ralph barked again.

"Good boy!" Joshua said. "Hand him a snack, Tom."

"Right away, oh globulous one," I said. I rummaged through the cooler next to me and fished out one of the sandwiches I had made, and gave Ralph a piece of the ham inside. Ralph accepted it gravely and then lay down next to me.

Joshua slid over and held up a tentacle. "Hey, look," he said. "I found me a frog." Inside the tentacle a terrified amphibian kicked, slowly, through the gunk that was Joshua.

"Jesus, Joshua," I said. "You're killing that thing. Give it some air."

Joshua created an air pocket and slid it up the tendril to the frog, who now sat inside it. It hopped a couple of times, trying to escape, before settling down and sitting there placidly. Joshua showed the frog to Ralph, who sniffed at the proffered tendril politely before laying his head down for a nap.

"We have these where I come from," Joshua said.

"Frogs?" I said.

"Well, obviously not frogs, exactly," Joshua said. "More legs, for one thing. And much, much larger. But the same concept -- amphibian, not very smart, all that. We used 'em sort of like you used horses and other big animals. Beasts of burden."

"Hi-ho, Silver."

"I get that," Joshua said.

"I'm not surprised," I said.

"I wasn't trying to kill it when I was surrounding it, you know," Joshua said. "I was just trying to check something. I was seeing if I could control it like we control the frogs back home."

"I don't get that," I said. "What do you mean?"

"Back home, we get into their brains," Joshua said. "We extend a very thin tendril into their skulls, connect into their nervous system, and use them for what we need."

I pictured Joshua slopped on the head of a horse, filling the animals ears with himself. It was a disturbing image, to say the least. "That's terrible," I said.


"It's just creepy," I said. "Invading someone's brain to have them do your bidding." I did an involuntary shudder. "It's like a mental rape or something."

"Tom, they're big frogs," Joshua said. "It's certainly not any worse than whipping some dumb animal to get it to do what you want to do. Anyway, it's not like we take over the brains of anything that can think. That's a --" He stopped for a second and waved the tendril, as if to imply trying to think of a word; the frog shifted uncomfortably within . "--sin. A really big sin. Like murder or incest would be for you."

"What a relief," I said. "Because, you know, people never murder each other or commit incest around here," I said.

"Don't blame me for the shortcomings of your own species," Joshua said. "Here, look. While we were talking, I got into this guy's head. Now watch." He dropped the tendril to the ground and slid it back into himself. The frog sat there, not doing much.

"Where's the tendril?" I said.

"The operative phrase here is 'very thin,' Tom," Joshua said. "You're not going to see it. Here we go."

The frog sat there some more. After a couple of seconds it nudged itself forward. Then it sat there some more.

"There," Joshua said.

"That's it?" I said.

"Let's see you do that, smartass," Joshua said.

"Do what?" I said. "The frog moved. Big deal. The frog would have moved anyway."

The frog lifted up on its hind legs and did a hoppy little samba. Its front legs moved in time.

"All right," I said. "That, I don't see very often."

"Thank you," Joshua said. The frog made an awkward bow and then tipped over. They're not exactly designed to be on two legs. It sat for a few minutes, then aimed itself towards the water and hopped away.

"You still controlling it?" I asked. I was imagining microscopic tendrils spieling out of Joshua like the fishing line in my rod.

"No, I let it go," Joshua said. "I wasn't doing a very good job. Your wiring is different here on Earth than it is back home. Even getting it to hop around was a bit of trouble. I'm sure if I worked at it, I could figure it out. But it's hard to do on the fly."

"You'll have to teach me to do that," I said.

"You'll have to become a blob first," Joshua said.

I patted my stomach. "Give me time," I said. "On another, not-entirely-unrelated note, I hope you weren't expecting fish for dinner. They don't seem to be biting."

"I don't think you're going to find any," Joshua said. "I'm pretty sure there aren't any fish here."

"So am I," I said. "But you never know."

"Well, when I was in the frog's head, I didn't feel any fish memories," Joshua said. "If there were any fish here, the frog would have been likely to have some record of it. At least, I don't think I felt any fish memories. Like I said, the wiring is a different."

I sat looking at Joshua for a couple of minutes. Then I started reeling in the line. "You know," I said, "I hate the way you do that."

"Do what?"

"Just casually drop stuff like that in the conversation," I said. "'Oh, look. Here's a frog! Watch me make it dance like Danny Kaye! Incidentally, did you know I could read its mind, too?' It really bugs me."

"I'm sorry," Joshua said. "I'm not trying hide anything. You could have asked me about it earlier -- when we were having that little Q&A."

"I didn't know to ask," I said. "Look, Joshua, I'm not really upset, but you have to understand. I need to know all about you. In the space of five minutes, you've shown me that your species has the ability to get into someone's head and read their thoughts --"

"Something, not someone," Joshua said.

"That's a distinction that's going to make a lot of difference to the 90% of humanity that doesn't know the difference between astrology and astronomy," I said. "This is a power that bothers me immensely, and I understand exactly what you're saying. How the Hell am I going to find a way to make the rest of the world get it?"

"If it bothers you, I just won't do it," Joshua said.

"You're missing the point, Joshua," I said. "It doesn't matter if you choose not do it. It's the fact that you can do it. It's alien and it's scary. It's something that we're going to have to work with. And that's my point. You know more about us than we know about you. If you know you can do something that humans can't, you really have to let me know. Don't wait for me to ask about it. And don't just bring it up in conversation. We can't have any surprises. I can't."

"You were lying just a second ago," Joshua said. "You are upset."

I started to refute that, but I stopped myself and gave Joshua a little grim grin. "I'm sorry, Joshua," I said. "You're right. I am upset. I've been thinking about this thing for over a week now. But I have no idea what to do. And it really bothers me."

"A week's not that much time," Joshua said.

"No, it's not. But by this point I should have at least some idea of a plan," I said. "Even a bad idea would be better than nothing. But I'm drawing blanks. I think I'm having performance anxiety."

"If it will make you feel better, I'll still respect you in the morning," Joshua said.

I grinned more widely. "That's the problem, you know," I said. "When I was a kid, I remember seeing this 1950s science fiction movie on channel nine. Three guys went to the moon and discovered it was populated by women. One of the Gabor sisters was the ruler. Here was humanity's first contact with life on another planet, and they all looked like fabulous dames. And of course the guys from Earth were having no problems with it at all. It would be much simpler if you looked like that."

"I don't know if I'd want to look like a Gabor sister," Joshua said. "Although it could have interesting ramifications. 'People of the Earth! Surrender now, or we will slap your policemen!'"

"Maybe not a Gabor sister," I said. "But not a blob, either. If you looked like Ralph," I motioned to the sleeping dog, "Then we'd be set. Everyone loves dogs."

"We know about this problem," Joshua said. "That's one of the reasons we came to you."

"I know. That's what I'm saying. By now I should have some idea of how to get away from this or work around it. But I'm having a hard time. I know I probably shouldn't tell that to you, but there it is. You've got me stumped at the moment."

"You'll figure it out," Joshua said. "Maybe while you're doing that, I'll take some lessons on dog behavior. As a backup. There are worse things than being a dog. Right, Ralph?"

Ralph cracked an eye open at the sound of his name.

From beside the cooler, my cellular phone rang. I sighed and picked it up. "Miranda, I'm busy with a client right now," I said. Miranda was the only person that had the number to this particular cellular phone (I had three), so I didn't worry about who it would be on the other side.

"Tom," Miranda sounded upset. "You remember Jim Van Doren?"

"Yeah," I said. During the last week Van Doren had been calling every couple of hours trying to get an interview with me. I eventually told Miranda to tell him whatever it was, I was not available for comment. "What about him?"

"Where are you?" Miranda said. "Are you in LA?"

"I'm in Glendora," I said. "It's about 45 minutes out."

"This week's edition of The Biz just came out," Miranda said. "You need to get back into LA and pick it up. You're on the cover. And you're not going to be happy with the story."

"Why?" I asked. "What's it about?"

"Here's what it says on the cover," Miranda said. "'Tom Stein is the hottest young agent in Hollywood. So why is he acting so damned weird?'"

Posted by john at December 8, 2004 11:03 PM