by Sam Bellotto Jr.
part 1 of 2
Everybody was a Vegan these days. It made sense. Those creatures from the planet Vega were flavorful and abundant. You could serve them up in as many ways as there were scales on the backs of their long necks. Vegan steaks. Vegan sausages. Vegan roasts. Baked Vegan. You could chop them up into Vegan stews. Vegan soup. With sweeteners, you got Vegan pudding, Vegan pie, Vegan flambé, and Vegan ice cream. The most adventurous of foodies had even been known to chow down on raw Vegan, thinly sliced: “Better than sushi!” they proclaimed.
Credit goes to Lemuel Thuringer, a retired fast-food restaurant chef with an early morning cooking show that nobody watched much after he accidentally got caught in an illegal ratings sweep. It wasn’t his fault, but it didn’t make a lot of difference. TV loved Thuringer; his photogenic squarish face, chunky physique, short-cropped curly brown hair, wide open eyes, and rakish tuft of chin whiskers made the video cameras smile.
Thuringer was busy snorting Joojoo pollen when the advance scout ships from the Vegan invasion fleet landed. Not that Thuringer had a drug problem. Lots of people used Joojoo nowadays; it was legal and non-habit forming.
The Drug Wars of the past had been a failure. In a desperate attempt to stem the trade in illegal narcotics and the gang activities associated with them once and for all, the governments of the world united in a scheme to genetically alter the cartels’ cash crops of choice with a man-made germ that would render the plants harmless, bitter-tasting, and exceedingly hard to grow. It was a success, but there were unfortunate side effects.
Nobody expected the germs to mutate tobacco and other members of the Nightshade family. But they did. Bell peppers and eggplants tasted like wet dog. Petunias no longer flowered. Hard-core addicts and two-pack-a-day smokers developed scaly red blotches all over their chests and arms. Within a few days they came down with flu-like symptoms. If not treated quickly, they died.
Most people had little love for hard-core addicts, anyway, and tobacco use had dropped considerably; you couldn’t find a two-pack-a-day smoker to save your life, or theirs. So there wasn’t a lot of sympathy or concern for the side effects.
Nonetheless, there was the moral issue to consider. A substitute was necessary. In order to find a new, popular intoxicant, a contest was held, the winner getting an all-expense paid week’s vacation in Cayos Miskitos.
Which is how a high school kid named Guillermo from Maine introduced the world to Joojoo pollen. You didn’t have to extract Joojoo pollen with expensive chemical processes. It was all natural and as previously mentioned non-habit forming. The only competition for the pollen was the Africanized Joojoo bees, but they were easy enough to conciliate.
So that is why Thuringer was smoking Joojoo pollen in the bathroom when the Vegans landed. Needless to say, he stopped what he was doing.
Thuringer wasn’t all that tall. The bathroom in which he was getting stoned had high, etched-glass block windows, and walls reinforced with pink ceramic tiles to keep out the water rot. He’d locked the door.
The bathroom was in the back of the house. This undoubtedly saved his life. The Vegan advance ships landed on the street where it was the busiest, and most crowded. It was intentional. The boxy spacecraft hit the pavement like gargantuan dice on a giant-sized craps table.
As if that didn’t do enough damage, their laser beam death rays haphazardly flickered up and down, side to side, slicing cars in half, people into little chunks, turning ordinary picture windows into globs of hot silicon. TV and radio signals were interrupted.
Not by the Vegans. Not by the Emergency Broadcast System, either, that had for decades carefully warned people in the case of a national emergency they should stick their heads between their legs and kiss their asses goodbye. No. TV and radio signals were all digital microwave and the Vegan ships’ appearance unfortunately produced a massive interference cluster.
Thuringer couldn’t see anything through the frosted glass, which was way over his head. A consequence of frequent Joojoo use is you have to go pee all the time. So he zipped up his pants, washed his hands, splashed water on his face, and unlocked the bathroom door.
“Holy Jesus Mary Mother of God and Saint Emeril!”
District Fire Chief Nut Isidorofsky was the first person to arrive on the scene.
The Chief had rocketed out here as fast as he could in an old squad car, not his, in response to a panicky call to dispatch that he couldn’t believe; but he knew it was no prank, either; perhaps an airplane crash? Terrorism?
He’d just come on duty. No time to change at his locker so he was in his street clothes — jeans, sneakers, size large red tee-shirt. Chief’s hat; that was official. And the badge, clipped to his belt. He didn’t have time for a quick shave. His gray hair went every which way, matching his one day old beard. He beat the cops to the scene, and everyone else. Isidorofsky had a lead foot even when it wasn’t an emergency.
The street smelled strongly of burnt pine with subtle undertones of singed hair, ozone, and gasoline. Many of the homes were smashed like stomped-on fortune cookies. Just as many stood with only minor abrasions. Cars laid like upended turtles. There were a few body parts strewn hither and thither, but it wasn’t as gruesome as it might have been, because the invaders had arrived well before rush hour.
In the middle of the carnage, the Vegan ships squatted, now inscrutably motionless and quiet. Cubical, about the size of portable storage units, semi-gloss ivory with no sharp edges, and no immediately visible cracks, seams, or indentations that might be indications of hatchways. The comparison with giant-sized dice was remarkably apt.
“Holy Jesus Mary Mother of God and Saint Emeril!” Chief Isidorofsky repeated. He whipped out a handkerchief and blew his nose. He was sweating although it wasn’t even warm, temperature barely 17 degrees Celsius.
Thuringer was the second person to arrive on the scene.
Most of his house was still standing, luckily. The entire front facade had been ripped aside by a mighty force. The structure resembled a doll’s house, open, with the interior in plain view and easy reach.
Thuringer exited by the back door. He could have walked out through the exposed front, but that seemed too risky, considering. So he sneaked out the back, edged around the side, and made his way cautiously to the street.
The sight froze him and panicked him simultaneously. Any vestige of Joojoo pollen intoxication was sucked right out of his system. His naked knobby knees under his short pants trembled. His sandals probably weren’t the best choice of footwear right now but he was so dazed he hardly knew he had feet let alone sandals. Had he just peed? Again? He wasn’t sure.
“Sh-o-o-o-o-t” was all he could exhale, deliberately.
“You!” Isidorofsky noticed Thuringer’s entrance. “What the hell?”
Thuringer shrugged. He couldn’t get anything else to work right away except his shoulders.
In the distance, police car sirens could be heard. Finally.
“What the hell are those?” Isidorofsky indicated the ivory dice from the planet of the giants.
Thuringer shrugged again. He picked his way through the debris over to where Isidorofsky was standing. He stood about 14 centimeters shorter than the other man, and 14 kilograms lighter.
“You were here! What happened?” Isidorofsky asked accusingly.
Over the protestations of the police sirens Thuringer said: “It sounded like a train wreck. Then a lot of banging and crashing... What the hell are those things?”
“I’m not touchin’ them, or goin’ anywhere near them.”
“You’re already near them.”
Near enough. The two box-shaped thingamajigs had come to a complete halt less than two car lengths distant. One of them was in the middle of the street. The other one was tilted a bit onto the curb, near a traffic sign. The sign read NO PARKING 9 a.m. to 4:30 pm. It was well past 9 a.m.
The police were on their way. In fact, three black-and-whites pulled up near Chief Isidorofsky, but probably not to give out parking violation tickets. One of the cops immediately hopped from his vehicle and walked over to where Isidorofsky and Thuringer were standing. That made three.
The cop took off his hat, ran his stubby fingers through his brown hair, put his hat back on, and muttered: “What the hell are those things?”
Another cop joined the entourage, cautiously approaching with his right hand grasping his still holstered semi-automatic service pistol. He stood for a second, staring out, then began to speak...
“Look. We don’t know what they are,” Thuringer interrupted.
“Um,” Isidorofsky added.
Curiosity, the philosopher once pointed out, killed the cat. That may be the case, but curiosity almost always trumps fear of death. Felis domesticus aside, there wasn’t much carnage visible to engender that kind of abject panic. A few severed heads strewn about, burnt torsos, and the occasional detached left leg, with or without a tiny heart tattoo on the ankle. You can get that much mayhem any day of the week at the tag-team wrestling matches or roller derby playoffs.
A crowd, then, accumulated, quietly, like a fall of snow. The police did their best to keep the onlookers a good thirty meters back. Thuringer was allowed to stay where he was. He held no official position, other than being a once-popular TV chef, but he was the second person on the scene, maybe the only survivor, and Isidorofsky was convinced Thuringer knew more than he was letting on.
In about the length of time it takes to scratch your head, a remote broadcast van from a local TV station pulled up behind the police cordon, cameras winking in the sun while the beautiful anchorwoman fixed her hair and makeup.
“Let’s get those bodies cleaned up before the children get here,” another voice — not the anchorwoman’s — recommended. It was a school day, after all.
A cell phone or two chimed.
Then a small rock flew anonymously out from the crowd and pinged ineffectively against the smooth side of one of the large cubes. The boxy monolith responded with a faint chirrup, like a laptop being booted, and quieted.
“Yo!” Isadorofsky bellowed. “Ya wanta get us all killed?”
“Shush. I see something,” said Thuringer.
All eyes and lenses, about twelve, as many as four dozen if the crowd of spectators some distance back from the main event and the video camera were included, shifted to the cubes. One of them had jiggled.
Sidearms were drawn and aimed.
Puzzle boxes, thought Thuringer. He brought images to mind of inexpensive plastic toy puzzle boxes from years ago that you had to figure out how to open in order to retrieve the prize rattling around inside. They opened easily enough once you got the hang of it. Grip the top and bottom face. Grip the two opposite side faces. Pull apart. The boxes split into two halves, each half with three sides. The rattling prize fell out — usually a token offering: 75 cents off a banana smoothie or a free air freshener with any car wash.
One of the boxes from another world — which is indeed what they were — hissed like a soda bottle being opened for the first time. Crack! It split apart; the two halves separated by only a couple of centimeters at first.
Thuringer noticed what looked like a few whisps of gray smoke threading out into the atmosphere and then evaporating. Minutes ticked by. Nobody moved. Birds chirped; they didn’t know any better. Somebody sneezed; that was involuntary. The two halves of the extraterrestrial hexahedron painstakingly pulled away from each other. The box came almost fully apart. At last. But a token did not tumble out.
Chicken parmigiana, thought Thuringer.
What had minutes ago been a bustling scenario on the verge of chaos quick-froze into a diorama, a digital image in 3-D. Something walked out of the separated cube. Walked? A bipedal gait for sure. Not exactly humanlike, though. More resembling a barnyard rooster’s strut. In heavy black boots made out of something plastic and shiny, with metallic soles. The boots went all the way up the short legs to just below the creature’s torso. The creature had a huge gut.
Thuringer wondered how the short, skinny legs, albeit clad in boots, could support such a gut. The arms, too, were skinny and similarly covered in the same sort of material that covered the legs, all the way up to the creature’s torso, not the shoulders as might be expected.
In fact, the creature didn’t have any shoulders. Legs, arms, torso, and neck. The neck was long, not as long as a giraffe’s, but a little shorter than an ostrich’s, very smooth and silky along the bottom, the top covered with what appeared to be rows of iridescent fishlike scales that caught the sun and returned little rainbows.
Here was an oddity. The eyes, two of them, lidless, exposed, like marbles, stuck out of the neck about one-quarter the way up from the torso. One could only speculate why, or the reason for such an evolution.
The head was tiny compared with the rest of the creature, perhaps because from Thuringer’s point of view its only purpose seemed to be to support a mouth, an orifice with no lips and big teeth that he presumed were teeth behind a moustache-like growth.
On top of the head was a thin disc of metal, which must be a hat because it wasn’t growing out of the creature, held in place by a strap. If the creature was breathing, it had to have figured out a way to process the Earth’s atmosphere, or maybe it came from a planet with a similar atmosphere, long pointed out as a distinct possibility by cosmologists, scientists, and science fiction writers.
From boot bottom to tin hat, the creature couldn’t have stood more than one and one-half meters. Overall, Thuringer almost laughed, which would have been an entirely inappropriate reaction, considering the circumstances. But this creature, invader, what you will, did indeed look like a chicken! Sprinkled with mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses on top and returned to the preheated oven for 20 minutes. Thuringer couldn’t help himself. He was a chef, dammit!
In the middle of his thinking up a tomato sauce and a nice bottle of Pinot Chardonnay, a gunshot popped Thuringer’s reverie like a sugar bubble. One of the cops had attempted to put a round into the creature, with dire results.
The bullet missed. The creature did not. The opened box spaceship — which is what it obviously had to be — returned an arrow of light that hit the cop directly in the center of his bullet-proof vest, shattering it. The cop spasmed and fell to the ground in a ragged heap.
You could have heard your sweat drop, too. The tension clung fast.
“Not dead.” The creature spoke. In English. Well, more like gobbled in English, but that made a lot of sense to Thuringer who had never run into a talking chicken before, but he figured that is exactly how it would converse.
None of the humans, for the moment, could speak, in English or any other language.
The creature cocked its head. “Not dead man,” it repeated.
“Ya speak?” Isidorofsky asked, largely rhetorically.
Well of course. Thuringer shook his head. You think it traveled here who knows how many millions of miles through the freakin’ universe in a spaceship with technology that beats the crap out of anything we’ve got, armed to the wishbone, and doesn’t have a basic ability to communicate? You’re serious?
“Us speak,” the creature cackled in agreement. “Language not difficult. Apology on mess. Unavoidable. You big boss of man, here? Man smell bad. Man not clean? Not organ to clean like us Vega have?”
It sounded like it said Vega. From the clucking, off-pitch pigeon-English vocalized by the creature it could have been anything verbally close to Vega. But Vega will do. The nomenclature isn’t all that important.
“Vega show how clean self.” The creature extended a two or three-meter long hairy tentacle from its mouth that it next used to demonstrate personal hygiene, specifically of the juicy areas beneath its arms and between its legs. The creature seemed to moan with pleasure.
“We do it differently,” offered Thuringer.
“Man smell bad. Cause not do it right,” instructed the creature. “Not surprise. Man clean organ look short.” Vegans were able to clean themselves and talk at the same time, apparently.
Copyright © 2013 by Sam Bellotto Jr.