Prose Header


Roundup

by J. H. Malone

Roundup: synopsis

EarthTours is a unique travel agency. It offers space aliens the opportunity to visit Earth in secret and disguise and to enjoy its primitive delights. However, a Vernernusian, “Joan Smith,” has gone missing in Montana. An EarthTours agent is dispatched to find her. He enlists the aid of another Vernernusian, “John Smith,” who is working as a plumber in Illinois. The Vernernusians are telepathic and have a gift for language learning. Their special abilities will bring insights that may make significant changes in Earth’s culture.

Table of Contents
Table of Contents
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4,

part 1


I’m employed by EarthTours, our planet’s only travel agency serving non-humans. Some among the superior races of the galaxy enjoy visiting a primitive planet like ours. Of course, these guests must remain clandestine. The human race would freak out if it knew they walk among us.

EarthTours: created by peripatetic aliens, operated by humans sworn to secrecy.

I work in Customer Service. I’m a guide, fixer, and ombudsman for our secret tourists from the stars. Potential visitors contact EarthTours via our deep-web .onion site. As necessary, we arrange arrival and departure dates and provide our customers with wormhole portal directions, highest-quality counterfeit visas, itineraries, and general sightseeing information. Travelers pay in cryptocurrency.

EarthTours provides an economical way for members of advanced civilizations to visit a primitive planet, undetected.

When these travelers arrive from their extraterrestrial homes, we review with them the EarthTours protocols governing their visit. Only those aliens with a deep knowledge of Terran ways are allowed access to our planet. In this way we can release them with confidence into an unsuspecting world, Customer Service standing by to ensure that they enjoy their stay while the world remains ignorant of their presence.

“We’ve lost contact with one of our guests,” my manager, Lou, informed me on a Sunday afternoon in July. “A Miss Smith. Her chip has been disabled. She’s turned it off, or something worse has happened. Please find her and get her back on the grid.”

He stood at our office window, gazing out at the Pacific beyond Santa Monica.

“Which Miss Smith would that be?” I said.

“The Vernernusian. Joan Smith. She’s here on an open-ended stay, straight vacation. Been here three months.”

“A vacation doing what?”

“Don’t know, don’t care.”

“Where did she arrive?”

“Seattle.”

“Her tour theme?”

“General Deluxe.”

“Her authorized area of exploration?”

“North America.”

“Are we sure she’s still on the planet?” I asked. “Has she used her portal? Maybe she didn’t like it here and took off.”

All guests arrive through their personal portals. Guests use portals off-planet the way humans use bikes, cars, and planes.

“I checked,” Lou said. “She’s still here.”

“When was our last contact with her?”

“Three days ago. She used the AMEX Black Card we provide, in Miles City, Montana, at a convenience store in a Conoco station. She bought a bag of Ruffles potato chips.”

“Miles City?”

“150 miles east of Billings on Interstate 94.”

“Tourist attractions in Miles City?”

“None that I know of. Population 12,000. At the junction of the Tongue and Yellowstone rivers. Western edge of the Great Plains. Farms and ranches.”

“Oil?”

“A pipeline. Drilling to the east. Some fracking starting up.”

“Anything I should know about Vernernusians?”

“They have telepathic abilities. I don’t know the details. Also, they’re long-lived.”

“Any other Vernernusians in the area?”

“Only one in the U.S., a John Smith, who resides in Effingham, Illinois.”

“Effingham?”

“I checked. Population 8,000. Halfway between Terre Haute and St. Louis on I70.”

“What’s Mr. Smith doing there?”

“He’s running a plumbing business called Flush It. Their motto: We’re Number One and Number Two. He arrived twenty years ago on an open stay but after five months converted to our fifty-year tour.”

“Plumbing. That’s a new one. Anything special about Effingham?”

“They have a 200-foot cross on the outskirts of town, billed as the tallest in the nation. That’s about it. Farming country, with some ranches.”

“So Mr. Smith is cloaked as a male and Miss Smith is cloaked as a female,” I said. “He older, she younger?”

“Mr. Smith chose a cloak with hints of the actor William H. Macy in his early thirties. Since the cloaks age naturally, Mr. Smith will look to be in his fifties now. Miss Smith chose Rachel Weisz at twenty-eight. Per our operating agreement, we have no information on the nature of Vernernusian gender or anything else about them, apart from their telepathic abilities. We impute their lengthy lives to their long-term stays, such as Mr. Smith’s.”

“Is this urgent?”

“You’ve got no time to waste. We aren’t supposed to lose track of our guests.”

“Since the two of them are telepathic, I’ll contact Mr. Smith first. He could be useful in finding Miss Smith. Montana is a big place.”

“Recruit him if you can. Then find her and help her enable her chip. If she leaves the planet in the meantime, I’ll let you know.”

“Ok. I’m off to Effingham.”

I booked a flight to St. Louis that departed from LAX at six the following morning. My carry-on contained a single change of clothes, toiletries, and a light Dodgers jacket for the Montana nights. My phone was loaded with pictures of the cloaked Smiths, copies of their tour contracts, and a couple of long reads. I didn’t expect to be gone long. I flew Economy. Nondescript.

Breakfast was served over Nevada. I spent the rest of the three and a half hours in the air reading on my phone. It was half past noon when we arrived in St. Louis. Effingham featured an airport but no commercial service so I rented a compact and spent an hour and a half driving there via Interstate 70, which for my convenience bordered the St. Louis airport. I chose the compact for the same reason as flying Economy: staying under the radar.

In the July heat I lowered all the windows, adjusted my sunglasses, pulled on my Dodgers cap, and drove with the radio turned up.

The Interstate carried me past one hundred miles of corn and soybean fields alternating with freeway exits to small towns named Pocahontas, St. Elmo, and the like. I took the Effingham exit and passed the 200-foot cross on my way into town. The drive reminded me why I had moved from the Midwest to Los Angeles as soon as I was old enough.

Mr. Smith’s chip broadcast his current physical location to my EarthTours admin phone but since I was passing his place of business on the way, I stopped in for a look. The Flush It building, a cinderblock shoebox, stood alone on the highway, surrounded by corn fields. The corn was high. A woman in the building’s office informed me that Mr. Smith was out on a job. She wouldn’t give me the address but said she’d call him. I told her not to bother and followed my phone’s directions to the house he was servicing.

His truck was parked in the driveway of a neat wood-frame home on South Fifth. Two hound dogs lay on the grass next to it. They ignored me. The neighborhood was quiet on a Monday afternoon. The summer sun burned overhead. Thirteen- or seventeen-year cicadas droned in the green foliage that abounded.

The front yard was bordered on the right by plum and apple trees. On the left, a tire swing hung from a linden tree. I heard Smith singing to himself under the house. I called into a crawl space hidden behind phlox and yarrow that reminded me of my youth and smoked a cigarette while he made his way out. A squirrel nosed in leaves under the linden tree. The dogs ignored it.

“What’s that smell?” I said when Smith was back on his feet holding two pipe wrenches in his right hand. “Something dead?”

“Pipe from the kitchen sink sprang a slow leak. After wastewater dripped under the house long enough, the family did think something had died.”

He transferred the wrenches to his left hand and held out his right. Caught me staring at it, wiped it on his shirt, held it out again. This time I took it.

“They kept waiting for the smell to go away,” Smith said, “but instead it got worse. A new pipe and a bag of lime, problem solved.”

The two dogs got to their feet and walked over to us, tails wagging. Smith did indeed remind me of William Macy. He looked to be in his early fifties but he could have been any age beneath his cloaking, which had aged twenty years since he donned it. I introduced myself. Smith introduced the dogs. I scratched their heads.

“Are you licensed for this?” I said. “The plumbing?”

“When I arrived on Earth,” he said, “I enrolled in the plumbing program at Midwest Tech in Moline. After graduation, I worked as an apprentice for four years, passed the test for my license, and opened Flush It.”

His cloaking grinned, arranging a proud look on his smudgy face.

“This is a vacation?” I said.

“I like using these,” he said. holding up his hands and wiggling the fingers. “Back home it’s all mental.”

I held up a hand of my own to stop him from elaborating.

“Please don’t tell me any more,” I said.

EarthTours forbids our extraterrestrial visitors from discussing anything pertaining to their corporeal, social, technological, or political existence off-planet. Telepathy as an aid to finding Miss Smith would in this case be excepted.

“Sorry,” Smith said.

“That’s OK,” I said, “I apologize for interrupting your work but I’m here because we’ve lost touch with one of your fellow Vernernusians, a Miss Smith. She arrived on Earth recently. Since you have telepathic powers, I’ve come to ask you for help contacting her. Come to think of it, you’ve probably read my mind already.”

Mr. Smith’s cloak raised his eyebrows, one of the latest model’s new features, along with flared nostrils, pursed lips, and head cocking.

“I can’t read your mind,” he said. “I don’t speak human. It’s not the same as vocal English. Even if I could, we’re not allowed to pry. It’s a tour rule.”

“If I talk to myself in English, can you hear that?” I said.

“If you do it out loud. Not if you think it.”

“Has Miss Smith contacted you since her arrival, one way or another?”

“No.”

I held up her picture, displayed on my phone. He shook his head.

“Would you like to help?” I said.

“Why is Miss Smith here?”

“Same reason as you, I imagine.”

“I’m here to get away from other Vernernusians.”

“I thought it was to use your hands.”

“Same thing. I’m sick of my community web. I’ve freed my mind. No mental interconnections. I’ve unknit myself from my social network.”

“I’m not asking you to interconnect or knit with Miss Smith. Just help me find her.”

Smith thought this over. I watched him. The dogs watched him.

“I’ve been here twenty years. Never caused a problem, ” he said.

“I know,” I said. “Please don’t cause one now.”

“Where is she?” he said.

“Last seen in Montana.”

“I’ve traveled around, but I’ve never been to Montana.”

“Now’s your chance. We’ll fly out today. You won’t even have to say hello to her or shake her hand. I won’t introduce you.”

He fished a couple of dog treats out of his pocket. The hounds accepted them, regardless of the state of his hand.

“What’s your telepathic range,” I said, “if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Maybe five miles to sense someone. A mile to send or hear a telepathic shout. A hundred yards to carry on a conversation.”

“Hmm. Wide open spaces in Montana. I’d hoped for greater range.”

The dogs were now on full alert, watching Smith’s hands.

“I’d still like you to come,” I said. “A circle with a five-mile radius is, what, seventy-five square miles.”

“Seventy-eight point five four,” Smith said.

“Fine,” I said. “Miss Smith last used a credit card in Miles City, Montana. Big Sky country.”

“I’ll have to call the office and make sure I can get away,” Smith said. “I do have a business to run. I also have a cat and a mynah bird at home, in addition to these dogs. Please wait while I check in.”

He hustled out to his truck and conversed with someone on his phone while pacing back and forth on the grass.

“All set,” he said when he came back. “I can go.”

“OK,” I said. “We might be out there a few days or a week. Pack your things and clean up a little before we leave. I’ll be sitting next to you on the plane.”

“I like to fly,” Smith said, “even in airplanes.”

He gestured and the dogs took off for his pickup.

“They know another treat is coming,” he said.

“You don’t speak human,” I said. “Do you speak dog?”

“Never learned it. Nor cat or bird.”

He lowered the truck’s tailgate and the dogs jumped into the bed. He doled out another treat. They hung over the tailgate watching me in the rental as I followed the truck back to Smith’s modest brick home on Cardinal Street. He invited me in, and I met the cat and the bird while I waited for him to pack. The cat was a friendly Burmese with a tendency to bite. The mynah bird spoke, telling me he was an eagle.

Shortly, Smith came out of his bedroom pulling a small duffle on wheels.

“I live alone,” he said. “A friend will take care of my pets and my plants.”

“I drove over from St. Louis,” I said, once we were in the compact with baseball caps and sunglasses in place. “Now for the drive back. Windows up or down? Summer heat or factory air?”

“Always down,” he said. “Effingham has an airport. Why didn’t you fly here from St. Louis?”

“No commercial flights and I can’t fly a plane. Can you?”

“I never have,” he said, “but I can give it a go.”

“No thanks. We have to return the car anyway. Are you using an EarthTours translator? That last didn’t sound like one of the idioms it uses.”

“I brought my own.”

We rode in silence for a while.

“How are you finding Earth after twenty years?” I said, once we were on the Interstate.

“It’s the cat’s pajamas.”

“The cat’s pajamas,” I said.

“When I get a reaction like that I explain that I grew up in Little Egypt, on the Missouri down near Cairo. That’s usually good enough to cover me.”

A Porsche shot past us doing better than a hundred.

“Wow,” Smith said as its snarl faded in the distance. “Humans driving cars. You’re short-lived but either indifferent or defiant about it.”

“More than a million road deaths a year, worldwide,” I said, “or so I’ve read somewhere.”

“Bravery or denial?”

“How about stupidity?”

“No,” Smith said. “I suggest bravery because you face death every day and laugh at it. So easy to make a simple mistake on the road and die in an instant.”

“Yeah, before you can finish texting,” I said. “How’d you choose plumbing?”

“I wanted something significant but not requiring fine motor control. I didn’t trust my new hands,” Smith said. “When a toilet backs up in your home, that’s significant.”


Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2020 by J. H. Malone

Home Page