FROM ASTEROID X-12!
by Martin PhippsI knew there was something weird about the guy when he accelerated up to the counter to demand his twelfth double-espresso.
And then he stood there on tiptoe with his eyes popping like goitres and his hair pigtailed in two white-knuckled handfuls, while the staring clerk inched over as cautiously as a bank-teller at gun-point to steam him up another brutal jolt to the nervous system, and then keyed the purchase into the cash register.
“Oh-keep-the-change-keep-the-change-keep-the-change-aha-ha-ha-ha!” he screeched, after slapping down a twenty, and then more or less hovered back to his seat without touching the floor.
With a single wrist-flick he quaffed the demitasse and then grinned around crazily at nothing, wiggling his fingers in his lap as if a typewriter were there, and bucking on his stool like he was getting zapped with electricity.
some-time-ahahahahahahahaha!” he piped at me, probably because I was the only person in the place, besides two clerks and an old guy lost in his newspaper. It was five a.m., after all. And so he bobbed up and came pretty much levitating across to me. Hey-do-you-mind-if-I-sit-down-
“Super-super-great-great-ahahahahahahha!” He fixated on my half-finished latte like a lecher plumbing the depth of somebody’s cleavage. “You-gonna-finish-that-ahahahahahahahaha!”
And he shrieked “great-great-great!” and snatched it and flung it back and then looked at me guiltily. “Ahahahahahahahahahahaha!”
The old guy peeked over the top of his newspaper at me now and I shrugged. He nodded. Then he looked at the clerk and she shrugged and he nodded and then the clerk looked at me and I shrugged and she nodded and then I looked at the old guy and he shrugged and I nodded. I decided at this point that maybe it was time to step outside and take a deep breath of the fresh spring air and break into a blind sprint in no particular direction. So I got up and left.
I was outside making a run for it, when the guy from the shop fell into pace beside me, more or less not touching the ground. He grinned at me and I started to say something like “get the hell away from me you kook!” when he tackled me. We rolled around on the park grass for a few minutes of fairly evenly-matched combat, before he mounted me and pinned my arms under his knees, and then started fiddling something into my left ear.
“Oh god, don’t kill me!”
“I’m not going to kill you, just relax and hold still.”
And I relaxed and held still. Because suddenly his speech wasn’t as blurred as a hummingbird’s wings.
“What happened?” I said.
“I’ve fitted you with a metabolic equalizer. It filters my words and adjusts for the tempo differences between the speech of the two species.”
I stared up at him for a second. “Did you say the two species?”
“Homo sapiens and Homo coffeum, sure. But of course I’m forgetting you’re one of the uninitiated. Don’t worry, fellah, it’ll all make sense to you soon enough.”
I was having trouble breathing, what with a two-hundred-pound psychotic crushing my diaphragm. Luckily, I managed to pitch my words in a tone of breezy insouciance. “Maybe it would be a bit better if you were to—oh, I don’t know—get up and let me flee. Stand. Is what I meant.”
And without a word he briskly obliged me. All his movements now were merely brisk, no longer blinding. Maybe all that caffeine was starting to wear off. The caffeine from those twenty-four shots of espresso. Imbibed in under eleven minutes. Or. Probably just not, I guess. But of course there was surely some perfectly rational explanation for his abrupt slow-down—one that didn’t involve multiple human species. I took out the earpiece.
All right, back in went the earpiece. “You know what,” I said, “I don’t even care anymore what the explanation is, I’m just going to say goodbye to you and leave and please don’t jump on me again because I can scream like a fourteen-year-old girl.”
And away I marched with my chin up, unmolested—down a woodchip footpath with my shoulders scrunched up in wait for a tackle from behind, which never came. I turned and passed down a corridor of trees and then cut out across the park’s big central lawn, a dog-walking and frisbee-tossing venue the size of a soccer field.
There was a flying saucer parked in the middle of it.
“This isn’t happening. I’m turning around.”
Amazing the rationality we can summon at these moments when we turn a corner and find ourselves in an old episode of Star Trek, isn’t it? I actually did turn around and start walking away—or actually trotting, with a hand pressed against my stomach because I was sure I was going to vomit with terror. I was close to that row of park trees when a loud-speakered voice bellowed “STOP!” I didn’t: I sprinted. And that hysterical espresso lunatic jumped out from behind a tree-trunk and held up his hands and shook his head.
“You’d better stop. They don’t like live eyewitnesses. You’ll get raygunned if you run for it.”
“Oh, big time. It’s pretty messy. Better surrender.”
So I turned around and put my hands up and the spacecraft shone a spotlight on me that turned out to be not a spotlight but a levitation beam that sucked me off my feet and across the field and set me down at the base of the foot-ramp that sloped up to the ship’s front door. Entrance hatch, might have been the technical term, I don’t know. Or access portal. Or admittance orifice. Or embarkation penetralum. It was the front door.
“Don’t sweat it, it’s just a brief written quiz that we like to randomly administer now and again,” said the coffaholic, abruptly at my elbow. “Takes five to ten minutes to complete, you’ll be on your way to the Daily Mail in no time.”
“How the hell do you know where I work?” I snapped.
“Um. Why, look. The ingress-aperture is opening. Up you go now.”
I edged up the ramp into a bright light that briefly blinded me to the details of the ship’s interior. With a faint automated whoosh the front door, or whatever the hell it was, shut behind me, and I winced and squinted around until my eyes had adjusted to the glare—and really it was just the all-white colour-scheme that took getting used to, not any phosphorescent blobs of alien life. We were in a corridor.
“Here we are,” said my companion, who would later state his name to be DX-17: so I’ll just shorten it now to DX. “The corridor makes a complete circumference of the ship, with doors along its inner wall accessing the six main rooms, which are organized like pie-wedges around the command centre. Just so you know. Now follow me. The testing room is over here.”
We trooped along and then halted and DX laid his palm against the wall until a panel of it whooshed away, revealing a big white room with lots of comfortable-looking white leather sofas along the walls and some kind of furry white animal-pelt carpeting. There was a white desk with a stack of papers sitting on one end and Robert De Niro sitting on the other.
“In you go,” DX said, and flathanded me on the back. “See you in a few minutes.” And there was a whoosh of closing door.
“Robert De Niro!” I cried. “They got you too! Oh my God, this is a nightmare! Is it an invasion? What have you heard? Are they overrunning the planet?”
“Relax,” De Niro said, “I ain’t De Niro. All the starship’s admittance staff are genetically reconstituted to resemble instantly-recognizable terrestrial celebrities in order to reduce the stress-level of first-time abductees. Make you feel more at home, basically. Ten minutes from now my shift’s over and the Pamela Anderson lookalike takes over.”
“I’d like to wait ten minutes.”
“Forget it, we’re on a schedule here. Now take this.” And he grabbed a sheet of paper off the top of the pile and put it on a clipboard and tossed it at me. “You can use the desk or a sofa. Please print your name clearly at the top and proofread all your answers for correct spelling. You may begin.”
I sat on a white leather sofa—something I’d always wanted to do, incidentally—and wielded the ballpoint that Robert De Niro, or whatever the hell he was, handed me, and then launched into the questionnaire, which ran as follows:
1. Have you ever been kidnapped by aliens before today (if yes, indicate the planetary origin of the visitants)?
2. How many cups of coffee, on average, do you drink in a twenty-four hour period?
3. How old are you?
4. Are you male or female?
5. From the following, circle your preference: Swiss Mocha, Brazilnut, Irish Cream, Colombian.
6. “I have no suspicions whatsoever concerning the possible secret ownership of the global coffee industry by extraterrestrial beings.” Circle true or false.
7. Do you include cream and/or sugar in your coffee, and if so with what frequency and in what quantities?
8. How would you respond—in political terms, as a citizen of a democracy—to a series of hostile corporate takeovers in the coming months, involving coffee-industry conglomerates swallowing up dairy and sugar manufacturers? If you answered “negatively,” describe what actions, if any, you would take to redress the perceived wrongdoing (e.g. organizing an anti-coffee lobby group; urging the overthrow of the current presidential administration; armed insurrection; etc.).
9. I believe President George W. Bush is (circle one of the following):
a) a human being with a will of his own and an internal anatomy
exactly resembling that of all other Homo sapiens
b) a startlingly lifelike robot constructed by aliens to do their secret
bidding on the planet Earth.
10. Is cappucino superior to espresso in your opinion?
11. How many of your friends would have answered the same as you on #10, and (if you circled “more than seven”) do you feel this represents an emergent consumer buying trend in your locality?
12. The greatest musical composition of Homo sapiens is:
a)Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Coffee Cantata”
13. Have you ever been required to and/or willingly undertaken to subsist on nothing but coffee for any length of time? If yes, indicate the time-span. If over 96 hours, describe any psychological or physiological effects, and whether or not you would enjoy having the experience repeated.
14. Do you believe the drinking of tea, fruit juices, soft drinks, alcohol, water, or other alternatives to coffee is an obscene and nefarious practice, and ought to be stamped out through legislation or, if necessary, the use of force?
15. Just supposing now (in purely hypothetical terms) that push ultimately came to shove in the matter raised in # 14, would you support the killing and/or gun-point conversion of non-coffee drinkers?
16. To your knowledge, what are asteroids?
a)small bodies that revolve around the sun, most of them with orbits that lie between Mars and Jupiter, ranging in size from a few inches to 620 miles in diametre, and consisting mostly of minerals like iron, nickel and gold.
b)gigantic coffee beans, inhabited by a race of humanoids intellectually and technologically superior to their terrestrial counterparts—a race of beings who conceal their existence from Earthling astronomers by means of “cloaking rays” which make the coffee beans resemble the “asteroids” of answer a).
17. Have you ever had your short-term memory erased by means of neuronal-scrambling technology?
Having carefully printed my answer to number 17, I set down my pen and placed my clipboard beside me on the sofa and rose to my feet in a cool and collected manner.
“I would now like to request that I be allowed to briefly step out of this room unaccompanied in order to urinate and nothing more,” I pronounced calmly.
De Niro lifted his left forefinger and spoke into it like a microphone. “Test complete. Homo sapiens subject exhibiting extreme nervousness. Request permission to anaesthetize.”
“Request denied,” spoke up an automated voice out of De Niro’s right elbow.
De Niro jerked his right elbow up and scowled at it.
“Denied? But the subject is considering evasive action. Situation extreme. Repeat! Situation extreme!”
De Niro’s right elbow crackled with radio static and then said: “Look. Would you just relax? We’re having some trouble booting up launch protocol configurations on the PXG1452267, so we’re going to stop for lunch for a while. Just get the guy a coffee and a cigarette, maybe he’ll calm down.”
“Homo sapiens subject has indicated interest in 3637010FGR,” De Niro explained to his forefinger. “Request permission to allow 3637010FGR to enter. It’s time for shift change anyhow, and I haven’t had my coffee yet.”
So Robert De Niro flipped up his right pinkie finger and said “3637010FGR to the testing room, over.”
“Roger, XA-3499,” said the voice of Pamela Anderson out of De Niro’s left nostril.
And a half-second later the door whooshed open and in pranced ravishing Pamela in one of her red swimsuits from Baywatch.
“The gods be praised!” I squealed inadvertently.
“Got a problem, XA-3499?” she pouted, and threw out a hip.
“Affirmative, 3637010FGR. I’m going for coffee. Try and calm this guy down.”
Whoosh went the door on the exiting Robert De Niro.
“Now what can I do to make you relax?” Pam pondered, and put a painted nail to her painted lips and frowned.
Oh boy oh boy. Well, we all lose our heads now and again, don’t we? Perhaps I should have been a little more clear-headed at that moment, when my survival seemed to be hanging in the balance. But, I mean—Pam was looking pretty darn good standing there, all stupid and blonde. So I didn’t make a run for it. Even though I would have easily escaped the spacecraft, with its dilatory unionized workforce, and been at liberty to rush around with my unerased short-term memory, spreading the word about the aliens among us.
But instead I told Pam in fairly elaborate detail just what she could do to make me relax—and by the time we’d finished doing it, the spaceship had taken flight with me still aboard, bound for Asteroid X-12, where the only thing to drink is coffee and all the food is high in caffeine.
And so here I am—a junior clerk in an alien ad agency. Right now I’m trying to come up with a punchy catch-phrase for our new line-up of Stellar! instant coffee, which is due for its coast-to-coast launch in the US next week, but to tell the truth I’m not having much luck. I feel kind of strung out. I think it’s the water here. The water is coffee. No, I don’t feel very well at all. But, besides the occasional migraine headache, it’s not so bad. I mean, I’m married to Pamela Anderson, for god’s sake! And right now she’s eight-months pregnant with our first child—a boy, I’ve been told by these fancy know-everything doctors they’ve got up here.
I think I’ll name him Buzz.
Background by Fantasy Land