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Ms. Wilkes postulates it’s never a good idea to eat local… when you’re on another planet…

The Visitor


Ann Wilkes

I was still in my hammock outside, talking myself into getting up. I turned to the horizon to see Tultania's sunrise. Then I saw it. An alien creature right out of a low-budget sci-fi flick. Must be a mirage.

I swung my legs over the side of the hammock and sat up. I rubbed my eyes and looked again. Mirages don't walk. Two arms, two legs, two eyes but something resembling the tentacles of a sea anemone sprouted from its head. The tentacles swayed in the gentle morning breeze. Or did the creature control their movement?

It stopped ten paces away, looked at me from two bulbous eyes and wagged its animated head. Was that a threat? Then the creature inched backwards and crouched down. Did that signify submission or attack stance? The thing looked about one and a half meters tall. Gray, wiry fur covered its body. Antennae and cilia filled its noseless, mouthless face. While I was still deciding whether it was real or just an insomnia-induced hallucination, the creature pricked up its antennae and straightened up. It pivoted on its large bare feet and disappeared into the blinding light of Tultania.

As I stood there, stunned, the faithful Tultania One wind swept clean any hope of tracking the creature. I shuffled back to the portable and made some coffee.

Didn't I want an intelligent creature to study–or better still–converse with? Was that a convenient hallucination? Next time, I wouldn't stand there like a dolt while its trail is lost. But where could this thing have sprung from? How did it avoid detection in our scans of the planet? The competition for these new frontiers had the company rushing and cutting corners. Maybe we missed it somehow.

Although delusions were common on these scan and drop missions. I'll just wait. If I see it again, then I'll report it to the others. They wouldn't be back for a while anyway.

That night, after doing the beached flounder routine for two hours, I got up and threw my pillow across the room. I tried jumping rope. Had a cup of chamomile tea. I finally plopped in the chair at my workstation. Sleep was just not on the agenda.

            "Computer, open Charles Colby, Personal Log and begin recording. Day 247, local time index 18.78 hours.

"We have just four months left before the retrieval ship arrives and no discoveries to excite the investors. They won't do cartwheels over the rodents and insects. Can't help but wonder what we're really doing here. Are we the ones being studied? Testing our responses to isolation and boredom? Not to mention the effects of the ion-rich atmosphere. How many ways can I say cranky, agitated and nervous? Hopefully, the ship won't be returning to retrieve the corpses of the men that went crazy and committed hari kiri on Tultania One.

"Martin's been thirteen clicks away at B camp for four days, checking out the desert flora. He's on foot. The rover only had to last a year. Was that too much to ask? The company didn't see fit to include a mechanic on our team.

"Dante and Reno check in by radio twice a day from their precious caves. So here I am, alone with my rambling thoughts and wandering sanity. End recording, encrypt and save."

I stumbled back to my cot and fell into a fitful sleep, waking at every sound. Was that a footfall? No, just the wind banging the hammock outside against the side of the portable. I don't know which scared me more: dealing with an alien of unknown intentions, dealing with same alone, screwing up first contact with a benevolent alien by offending or infecting it, or the possibility I could be hallucinating. My dreams alternated between the creature, a nervous breakdown and my former fiancé.

"Hey Colby old man," Martin yelled, saving me from my nightmares.

I stretched and rose to a sitting position, only managing a "hey".

 "How's the solitude treating you?" Martin asked.

"Let's just say I'm even glad to see your sorry ass."

"So nice to feel welcome," he said, dumping his equipment on his workstation.

"So what did you find over the dunes? Anything edible?" I asked him.

"Only one edible plant according to the molecular analyzer.  Might do wonders for the local cuisine, though. It's spicy. Haven't named it yet. Just think, several centuries ago we would have just observed what the local wildlife eats. Of course, that would be provided there was enough wildlife to observe." Martin shook his head. "You okay? You look a bit done in."

"Sleep is underrated." I rubbed my face and stretched.

"I also found a plant similar to our aloe vera and another that has fibers that would put cotton to shame. I haven't named them. They'll have to be specimens 'a', 'b', and 'c' until I get some sleep and inspiration. Or should they be "e" for edible, "a" for aloe and "f" for fibrous? No one's going to read the prelim but me anyhow. Taste "e" and tell me what you think," he said as he handed me some sticky leaves.  "Never thought I'd miss that raggedy old cot."

He got out of his boots and collapsed onto the cot, sleeping almost instantly. Lucky bastard. The "e" plant tasted like a cross between scallions and cilantro. I hate cilantro.

I checked the barometric, thermal and ionic readings and ran some tests on the few bugs that we found. Martin slept most of the day. We had dinner together. I pretended to listen to him with more than my usual interest. I just wanted him to do the talking. I didn't trust myself not to blurt out the tale of my encounter.

That night, after an internal pep talk, I decided to sleep outside. I had to know.

Settled in my hammock with a holo-imager and blanket, I watched the horizon until a crick in my neck finally forced me to turn away. Giving in to fatigue, I allowed sleep to claim me.

I woke up to the sound of breathing and it wasn't my own. And what was that smell? I reluctantly opened my eyes. It was leaning over me, staring at me with its protruding eyes. Heavy breaths emitted from its midsection. I yelped and gripped the edges of the hammock as if it were my anchor to reality.  It jumped back and peered at me from its mouthless face, its cilia in fluid motion.

I scrambled out of the hammock, crumpling to the ground in a heap. The holo-imager landed face down in the sand. The creature backed up and moved its hands around. It repeated the same pattern of hand movements over and over again alternately pointing emphatically back toward the West.  I slowly sat up, and rose to my feet, never taking my eyes off that hideous face.  I held my palms up in what I hoped was a universal gesture for "I come in peace" as stepped towards it.

We were in striking distance. Its feelers pointed toward me and one of its hairy arms shot out at me. My fight or flight mechanism bailed, leaving me paralyzed. It grabbed my wrist. Its warm, wiry fur sent shivers through my body. My heart beat hard and fast. So this is first contact, not a hallucination. I must remain passive. Don't risk inadvertent provocation. It shook my wrist, causing my hand to flap up and down. It wanted me to gesture back! To communicate. Some ambassador I am! I nearly pissed my pants. Duh! No mouth – no speech!

I said in my calming voice that I used when giving my cat, Rothie his bath back home, "My name is Chuck Colby. I don't know your sign language. We use vocal communication. That's what I'm doing now. I know you can't understand me but perhaps you'll understand my intent."

My little speech was met with a flurry of signing and a blast of noxious air from its mid section. I had to fight my gag reflex and nearly lost.

The creature then pulled me down to a sitting position. Did it realize my knees were buckling and threatening to dump me on the ground? We faced each other crossed-legged in the sand. The creature traced a rough representation of itself in the sand with its finger and then one of me. The only difference being the number of holes in our faces.

Pointing to the likeness of itself, it signed something then pointed at me.  I tried to imitate the sign. Then it pointed to the picture of itself and then signed and looked at me. I signed back. I signed my name in Galactic Standard Sign Language and pointed to the stick figure Colby in the sand.  The creature drew a circle in the sand and then cupped its two hands together to form a sort of ball then pointed to the circle. Patting the ground, it pointed to the circle and cupped its hands again. I eventually got the idea that it meant Tultania One. It scooped up some sand and let it fall through its fingers then patted the ground again. Could mean sand or ground.

After adding several more words to my vocabulary, it stood and held out its hand to help me up. By that time, the rotten vegetable smell didn't seem so bad. Either that or my olfactory nerves were on overload and refused to send any more signals to my brain. As the creature demonstrated, I learned sit, stand, sign/speak, look/see and walk. Then it passed its right hand over its eyes and turned the palm around to face me all in one quick fluid movement. Then it left.

I remained rooted to that spot. Surely this was far too solid and detailed…and smelly…to be a hallucination. And I'm not that imaginative. By the time I mustered the courage to follow it, the creature was hidden by a dust devil. Martin will think I'm crazy but if we're not alone here, he has the right to know.  I picked up my blanket and my sand covered holo-imager. Damn! I didn't even get an image. 

Martin was sprawled all over his cot, snoring. An involuntary jerk woke him and he jumped out of bed like it was on fire. He looked scared shitless.

"Having nightmares?"

"Huh, wha? Yeah. You could say that." He rubbed his eyes.

"Want to talk about it? I'll tell you mine if you tell me yours." I was stalling and I knew it.

"Oh, bugger off," he said.

"Suit yourself."

"Got any decent coffee left?" Martin asked as he stretched.

"We haven't had decent coffee ever and I didn't brew any yet. We need to talk when you're caffeinated. Got a little story to tell you that you might find interesting." There. I'm committed.

Martin got his coffee and sat at the table staring wide-eyed at nothing in particular. "Out with it. What's on your mind?" he asked from behind his piping hot, yet somewhat less than aromatic, coffee.

"What if there was life on this planet? I mean intelligent life?" No reaction.

"You tell me. What if?" said Martin, still not looking interested.

"What would you say if I told you I met one?"

"Met one? Met one what? Here? What do you mean?" he asked. That got his attention.

"An intelligent creature right here on Tultania One. I can't speak with it. It doesn't have any mouth. It's teaching me its sign language."

Martin looked worried—either for my sanity or because he believed me. Then his face brightened. "You're so full of shit. Why don't you invite him over? We'll have a tea party, shall we? You'll be the Mad Hatter."

When met with my somber affect, he said, "You're serious, aren't you?"

I nodded.

"Where is it? What did it want?"

"I don't know because I didn't follow it. It hasn't communicated its intentions yet. If you hadn't slept in this morning you would have met the thing yourself. Both times it appeared in the morning before the wind kicked up. It's bipedal with two arms and two legs but that's pretty much where our similarities end."

Describing the creature took a while but he didn't interrupt once.

"Colby, are you sure that this wasn't all a wild dream from the ion rich atmosphere?" he asked in the patient, cautious tone one uses with a psychotic you don't want to trigger into a violent episode.

"Well, there's one way to know for sure. It's already come twice. No reason to think it won't be back."

"I'll watch with you before sun up tomorrow. Will it come if we're both out there?" he asked.

"Maybe you should watch from the window until I establish communication. I can introduce you."

"I thought you said it doesn't talk." He stabbed a boney finger my way.

I glared at him.

"This whole thing sounds crazy. You're not putting me on?"

I shook my head with my gravest of expressions.

"Okay. Here's to first contact," he said, raising his mug.

The day went by slowly. Nothing else mattered in light of the creature. We threw together our survival packs in case we had an opportunity to follow it.

We tried in vain to sleep. Martin sat near our only window with plenty of blankets and I was ensconced in the hammock outside. My eyes didn't leave the horizon. We waited.

I expected Murphy's Law to prevent the creature's return now that I had a witness but it came just as Tultania's first meek glow shot out from the western horizon.

I slid off the hammock and walked, making sure not to obstruct Martin's view from the window.

The creature wagged its head in greeting. There were so many questions to ask but first we needed the means. I signed 'you come' and pointed to the portable. I turned and walked toward the door. I smelled its stench following me. Reaching for the door handle, a quick look over my shoulder confirmed what my nose already knew. 

I held the door open and motioned it in. It took one wary step over the threshold. The creature's eyes, tentacles and antennae probed the room. It stayed in a crouched stance. Martin stood abruptly, knocking the chair over behind him. His eyes bugged out of his chalk white face. The creature pulled back. I signed 'Martin' in GSSL.

Martin finally found his voice. "You weren't kidding about the smell. It's bloody awful!" He tried to sound calm and nonchalant. It wasn't working.

"Martin, I'd like you to meet (sign for the alien)."

"Right. No mouth, no speech. But what do we call it to each other?"

"Never came up."

"Well we can't just keep calling it the creature now can we?"

"Okay, you can name our first intelligent alien. Can't help you with the gender. May not have one."

"How about Connie? Short for Constance or Conrad."

 "Works for me."

Connie started walking around the room, taking in everything. It ran its finger along the computer console and the food hydrator.

"You better give it the tour," Martin said.

I walked over to Connie and pointed to the food hydrator. I threw a pseudo-beef pot roast in and flicked it on. At the computer, I brought up an image of the Tultania system and pointed to Tultania One then pointed to the ground. Connie made his gesture for "correct". Then I brought up an image of the ship that dropped us there and pointed to Martin and myself. Connie signed 'understand'. The hydrator dinged and I brought the roast to the table and cut off two pieces. As Connie watched, I put a bite in my mouth and began to chew.

The creature picked up the other piece and inspected it using its hands, eyes and feelers. I still expected an opening to appear in its face. It pushed the meat into the opening in its torso. Loud rumblings ensued accompanied by a smell that could only be bile.

"Now what?" asked Martin. He looked like he might retch at any moment.

"We need to find out how many more of them there are."

The little things are so abstract without common language. How do we sign "how many"? I counted on my fingers and drew a stick figure of Connie, then pointed. Connie signed that it was alone. We learned it had crash-landed. Its shipmate didn't survive the impact. Then Connie made the sign for goodbye and left.

We looked at each other and then got up to follow. It was just six meters away. We called out and ran after it. Connie turned around to look at us. Then it signed "you sit" before resuming its journey. Must also mean to stay put.

"Should we follow anyway?" asked Martin.

We grabbed our packs and took off after Connie.

We theorized about its origin, culture, worldview, and reproduction on the way. I don't know how Connie knew where it was going. I saw dunes, dunes, and more dunes. Maybe it can smell its way home with all of those feelers.

Finally, after a couple of hours, a small space ship came into view. The charred, pockmarked bullet-shaped vessel was half buried in the shifting sands. A translucent fabric enclosure braced against its side harbored instruments and a chair. Connie signed that he expected no one to rescue it. We spent the night and the next day with Connie. We tried to help with the repairs but what could we do? We couldn't even fix an Earth vessel.

"You must come with us when our ship arrives," I signed to Connie.

It looked at me as I discussed the matter with Martin. No doubt wondering what we were saying. Then it looked at me for the longest time, signing nothing.

"You will come with us?" I signed.

Connie expressed its gratitude by patting its belly.

I told Connie we would visit again and that it was welcome at our camp any time. At least, I hope that's what I signed. I did learn that they use their antennae, cilia, and rudimentary telepathy to communicate on their planet. Now that's what I call body language! But we were limited with this hodge podge of signing used only by handicapped persons on our respective planets.

Martin did manage to ask about procreation. Took about an hour. They procreate by asexual budding once and when the offspring reaches the adult stage, the parent dies. They grow their own replacement complete with genetic memory.

On the way back to our portable, Martin went on and on about what man could accomplish with genetic memory.

All I could think about was telepathy. Maybe in time, I could learn to send my thoughts its way. But I think in English. Oh well.

When we were almost back to the portable, my stomach started cramping on me. We ate what Connie offered. Martin had his Molecular Analyzer with him and said it checked out. Maybe it's just nerves. I probably just need some rest and lots of water. I'll be fine.

Several months later…

"Lieutenant Bradley, have you found the team?" came the captain's voice in Bradley's radio.

"Negative. They can't have been gone long, though. There's food on the table and bedding in the hammock. There's also a stench in the portable. Smells like garbage and wet, dirty dog. Wallace found Colby's log. The last entry is day 250, two hundred and twelve days ago."

"Search the area and report back every ten."

"Roger that."

"Sir, over here." Wallace called from behind the portable. Lieutenant Bradley walked around from the front and stopped dead in his tracks. Wallace was kneeling by a new grave, which was the last in a row of four.

Bradley read the inscriptions on the older ones. Brian Dante CE 2414, 1/2, Daniel Reno CE 2414, 1/2 and Martin Thompson CE 2424, 1/3. "My God! They were dead before we were out of the system. Let me see the log."

Bradley called up the first few entries.

"Shit! Dante, Reno and Thompson ate a local plant. Colby didn't like it. The MA was malfing or it was just something it couldn't screen for. It killed them and Colby's mind manufactured another reality to keep him going. He hallucinated Thompson and believed the others to be off spelunking the whole time. Poor sap."

"Sir. What about this one?" asked Wallace, pointing to the new grave. It had no inscription. Just a stick figure scratched into the marker.

"Captain, Bradley here. We've found four graves. All but Colby died the first week according to Colby's log and the dates on the markers."

"Bradley, did you say four graves?"