Ask Arlen

Ask Arlen

by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

Illustration by Theodore Iszler

Plummeting through the predawn sky, all Qtzl could think of was that his family would never know what had happened to him. He would burn his epitaph across an alien sky alone, while the only eyes that would see him—alien eyes—would mark him as a meteor.

It didn’t happen quite that way. He managed to bypass his malfunctioning navigational array, regain control of the craft before it began to disintegrate in the atmosphere of the planet, and fire up his braking field. It made his descent more spectacular, but slowed the ship. He downed it in a labyrinthine maze of mountains and sat quaking, but alive, wondering what he ought to do next.

“Qtzl,” Ship said. “You are alive.”

“Indeed. Thank you.”

“Your vital signs are quite strong, though your respiration is a bit elevated. May I recommend that we attempt communication with any nearby comrades?”

“Do that.” Qtzl glanced around, discomfited by the sound of hissing from somewhere to the stern of the small craft.

“Communication impossible. Order disregarded.”

Qtzl brought his eyes back to the spherical console display. “Impossible? Why did you recommend we attempt it, then?”

“Protocol,” Ship said, and managed to sound reproachful. “May I recommend that you get out and reconnoiter?”

“No, thank you. I d rather not find out, for the sake of protocol, that reconnoitering is as impossible as communication.”

“The planet’s atmosphere is breathable,” Ship informed him, reproach thickening. “I repeat: I recommend that you get out and reconnoiter.”

Qtzl did that, if for no other reason than that the continued hissing from astern made him nervous. Outside, he could see that the damage was severe. The bow planes used for atmospheric maneuvering were sheared off and the landing cradle had failed, dumping the craft onto its braking-field generator. The communications array was smashed beyond recognition and steam oozed from a seam behind the cabin.

“Damage report,” he ordered, trying to sound authoritative rather than frightened. “Source of steam.”

“Environment controls disabled… coolant chamber breached.”

Qtzl took a step backwards. “Are you likely to explode?”

“Likely? That is a judgment call. Likelihood of explosion, twenty to one against.”

“Possibility of repair?”

“Repair necessary to continued functioning.”

Qtzl tried to swallow around the dry patch in his throat. “No, no. I mean, what’s the possibility that I could repair you?”

“You installed my navigational array,” Ship said.

Qtzl colored all the way to the tip of his crest. “Point taken,” he said and trudged off in search of shelter, cursing his mechanical ineptitude. This was like a grade-B ixltl—foolhardy adolescent stranded alone on an alien and possibly hostile world, no way of contacting his loved ones. Alone against—

“Ship, life-form readings, please.”

“You are surrounded by an abundance of small life-forms, Qtzl.”

“How small?”

“Very small. The largest is approximately eight ixiqs long and four ixiqs in height.”

“Intelligent?”

“Intelligence is a relative concept. Could you be more specific?”

“Are they people?”

“No people are present.”

Qtzl sighed, ruffling his neck frill. Someday perhaps, ship consoles would be less dogmatic. “I need shelter. Could you—I mean, please locate shelter.”

Ship was silent for a moment, then said, “There is an artificial structure 100 itixiqs to the east.”

Qtzl’s blood froze. “Artificial?”

“A domicile. It is vacant… presently.”

Qtzl was both excited and fearful as he approached the domicile. It was perched near the top of a wooded slope, hemmed in by what he assumed were trees; only the second story’s high, peaked roof nudged above the many branches.

He entered through a door screened by flowering plant life. The building was, as Ship had said, vacant, but not empty. It was full of furnishings—some comfortingly and eerily familiar, others whose uses Qtzl could only guess at.

He was at once unnerved and delighted. A person lived here! An alien person whose dimensions were not unlike his own. He wondered how soon the alien would return. He opened his mouth to ask Ship, but realized Ship would only say—with impossible condescension—that it was not omniscient. That fact bothered Qtzl deeply just now.

His senses told him that no food had recently been prepared here and there was a fine layer of dust on the furnishings that spoke of disuse. Perhaps this was someone’s sabbatical refuge. His explorations revealed much of interest. There were but two small sleep chambers (or so he took them to be) with one padded pallet apiece. Both were flat; Qtzl couldn’t imagine sleeping on them. He was boggled by the number of belongings this alien had accrued.

He was also boggled by what he took to be representations of the planet’s natives. Although there were images of a number of fur-bearing animals—chiefly hanging within frames on the walls—by far the preponderance of pictures were of a bipedal, bilaterally symmetrical being that wore fur only on or around its head and which possessed two eyes, a small mouth, and a pointy, erect nose. They were neither terrifyingly ugly nor mesmerizingly beautiful, despite what the popular ixltls suggested to the contrary. But they were undeniably alien. Except for the eyes, Qtzl found the faces mystifying; without a neck frill and crest, how could he ever hope to read their emotions? Creator willing, he would never have to try.

During his meal of synthesized rations, Ship informed him that it had been doing some calculations. “Repair is possible,” it told him, and proceeded to rattle off a list of necessary materials. “Needed metals, minerals and chemical compounds are present in this planet’s mantle. They are also present in the artifacts found in this domicile, which indicates that the natives mine and refine them. This society would appear to be fairly advanced in metallurgy and chemistry. It should not be impossible to effect my repair.”

“But will 1 be able to do it?”

“I will offer instruction and guidance,” said Ship, and Qtzl imagined smugness in the tone.

“How do I go about obtaining the materials?”

“I have no idea.”

Kerwin Frees was a UFO chaser. He was a card-carrying member of MUFON. He was also a card-carrying member of CSICOP (which he referred to lovingly as “the psy-cops”), and saw no contradiction in the dual membership. He was both skeptic and true-believer but, at the moment, the true-believer was dominant, for Kerwin Frees was certain he had just seen a UFO land in the deep, piney woods beyond the south shore of Lake Tahoe.

He had not been chasing UFOs when he witnessed the long trail of light arcing from the heavens. He had been lying on the hood of his Saturn stargazing, drowning his senses in the immensity of the Universe and sipping a beer, figuring that next month when the tourists and fair-weather Tahoe-ites began to arrive, he would go to Montana where a rash of sightings had recently occurred.

He was immediately galvanized. The beer was forgotten. He had just enough time to lift his field glasses and track the fiery object s fall. Most people would have taken it for a meteor. Kerwin Frees did not make that mistake. The trajectory was all wrong, suggesting at least a partially controlled descent; its trail flattened out before disappearing behind a wooded ridge. It was not a jet—no jet had ever plummeted from that distance. It was not a space shuttle—he knew this because he had the shuttle schedule (hacked out of a NASA computer) memorized.

Kerwin Frees poured out the remains of his beer, tossed the can into the recycle bin in his trunk, and shut himself into his car with his CB radio.

Qtzl slept curled in a large cupshaped chair. He did not sleep easily or well, and was up before daybreak exploring his borrowed lodgings and pondering his predicament. On his own, he came up with the idea that Ship s Field Remote Unit should scan the foodstuffs in the alien’s larder, and he found what looked vaguely like a computer in a cozy, cluttered chamber. The FRU confirmed the find. It was a computer of sorts, and was connected to some sort of alien network. Munching on some dry, crumbly white squares Ship had deemed edible, Qtzl watched the FRU (which looked, appropriately, like Ship in miniature) put the alien artifact through its paces.

“The machine incorporates no intelligence,” Ship told him after exciting the boxy alien unit into a series of bleeps and chitters. “It models reality in simple binary languages which are relatively nimble, but not exceptionally powerful.… The network to which it is connected,” Ship added after a long pause, “is, however, rather extensive. If you will allow me the time, Qtzl, I can explore the pathways. Perhaps I can determine a means of procuring the materials necessary for the repair of my transport module.”

Qtzl allowed the time, and used it to his own purposes. Sometime in the middle of a fitful nap, Qtzl wakened to Ship’s strident desire to share its findings.

“This society functions on a free-market system not unlike our own. I have located sources for the materials you need, and can arrange to have them delivered to this place.”

“How?”

“Quite simply by placing ...

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