Enoch yawned. It had been a short night, and it was already getting late in the afternoon. If he didn't get some rest, he might catch a cold or something. Oh wait, he'd already caught something, and Rafile's potion cured it. Enoch wondered if it would come back. He also had a bunch of dirty clothes in the car, and he needed to get some groceries. What a day this has been.

"Look," he said, "I really want to talk some more, maybe get you to tell me more about your lander and stuff, but I need to get some things done. You guys aren't in any hurry to leave, are you? I mean, can we pick this up again tomorrow?"

"I think I understand you wish to discontinue conversation until the next day, is that correct?"

It occurred to Enoch that maybe these Ghibbers didn't sleep. How do you explain what "tomorrow" means? "Yes. Is that OK? I don't want to offend you, but I need some time to get groceries and do chores. I'm guessing you don't want to come into town with me, do you?"

"Right. No, it would not be a good idea to engage more humans at this time. Are you planning to tell other people about us? We prefer to learn more from you before that happens."

Enoch did not want his place swarming with Feds and media, not yet. The military would probably force him off his own property, and he would lose any opportunity to learn more. There was time enough for that. "No, just you and me. We can decide later -- tomorrow or next week or whatever -- when you are ready to see more people. Do you plan to stay long?"

"How long is 'long'?" Lazir responded. "We don't know, but the lander is self-contained, and we can fabricate all of our physical needs in the energy converter for more than a thousand times our stay so far. Is that what you call 'years'? We are prepared to stay and work with you as long as necessary to accomplish our mission."

"You never told me what you mission is," Enoch interjected. "Can we talk about it tomorrow?"

"Perhaps. We need to analyze the data we have accumulated today, before we know what else we need to study. Tomorrow is a good time to resume. Shall I return after -- what you call sunrise?"

"How about ten?" Enoch was a late sleeper.

"Ten? Ten of what?" Apparently they had not completely figured out time and dates yet.

Enoch glanced quickly at the clock on the wall and decided that analog time was too hard to explain. "Here, look," he whipped out his cell phone. "See, it says 4:12. That's what time it is now. That's in the afternoon. Remember all those emails? They are all time-stamped. That was around nine, 9:30 this morning. There are 24 hours in a day, counting from 1 to 12, then starting over in the middle of the night and again in the middle of the day. Minutes count from zero to 59, then the hour advances. I guess you knew that already. Anyway, the time-stamp on the emails counts from zero to 23:59, then starts over at midnight. Look, see, now it's 4:13. Some of the websites you might visit also have clocks you can look at. When the local time here is ten tomorrow morning, we'll resume. OK? That's, um, twelve... like 18 hours from now. If you want, I can give you a holler or an email or something."

"I understand," Lazir said. "I will return at ten tomorrow morning." He got up and headed out the door.

Enoch picked up the TV remote and turned the set off. He looked around at the rest of the stuff in his living-room office and decided nothing needed his immediate attention. But he needed clean clothes. He went out to the garage and brought in his bag, then turned it out onto the bed, and picked out his dirty clothes, carried them into the laundry, and got a load started.

He decided he could think about what to do next while driving. He swung past the kitchen to review what he needed for groceries -- mostly fresh stuff; he kept his canned and frozen goods well stocked -- veggies and fruit, maybe a steak or roast.

He glanced at the gas gauge as he backed out of the garage. Gotta buy gas, too. Maybe hit the ATM for some cash. One of the problems with living so far out of town, he had to plan his trips in and stock up on everything. It was more than a half-hour each way. Enoch kept a couple jerry cans in the garage full of gas, which he rotated every month or two, so if he forgot to fill up, he wasn't stranded. Next time into town he would take the pickup and refill the cans. He still had a quarter tank in the car, which would get him to town and back. He thought about the Ghibber energy converter, how much more efficient it was. Ran on gold, Lazir had said. Yeah, this car does too, different kind of gold. Gas was a lot more expensive in California -- it had something to do with how they run the government there -- but you didn't have to drive 40 miles to get it. Living out in the middle of nowhere had its disadvantages.

It had advantages, too. Like the Ghibbers would not have chosen him if he were more connected. He still wondered what their agenda was. Lazir showed a lot of interest in the form of government. Maybe it's because they didn't have much government, so this was new to them? Lazir had denied having a team leader. That was weird. Or did they plan on overthrowing human governments? Why not just bomb the capital cities? Maybe they needed to know which cities were important. Metropolitan New York is bigger than Washington, but is it more important? That's hard to say, with the United Nations in New York. Less now since 2001, but a lot of global businesses had headquarters in New York. An invading alien force -- if that's what they were -- would need to learn these things if they wanted to be effective.

It seemed like the Ghibber technology was only slightly advanced over humans, maybe like the difference between modern science and the industrial revolution in the mid-19th century, so they needed to learn a lot before they could implement whatever their agenda was.

Maybe they were peacible. You'd think an advanced civilization would recognize the advantages of peace over war. But then there was this "Ancient One" religious thing. At least Enoch assumed it was religious. What else could it be? How could an advanced civilization still believe in religion? Everybody knows that's a dark ages thing. Even Enoch's parents, they were so out of date.

Interstellar travel. Lazir was cagey about saying much about it. Maybe the technology was too advanced for Enoch's education level. Or maybe Lazir didn't understand it himself. After all, Enoch could not explain an internal compustion engine -- and here he was driving one. You just turn the key step on the pedals and steer. And stop for gas, gotta have the gasoline. It takes a special kind of gas, but Enoch didn't have a clue what the differences were. Different from diesel, different from kerosene, or alcohol. All these are fuels, but they behave differently, and they take different kinds of engines to use them. Enoch didn't have the slightest clue how they were different, only that he had to buy unleaded gas for this car. It would run on an alcohol-gasoline mix, but not very well. At least that's what his mechanic told him.

And what was that about not being able to see Lazir's home star from here? Maybe he meant it was only visible from the southern hemisphere? He'd had no trouble pointing through the curvature of the earth toward the second landing site in the Amazon jungle (if that's where it was). He had no trouble pointing skyward for the Damic people's home star. Was Lazir afraid of telling where he was from? That was weird.

Enoch brooded for a long time as he drove.

He took the exit into town, stopped to fill the tank, and then walked across the street to The Lazy J, a seedy bar and grill out here on what used to be "Route 66" where he sometimes ate. The interstate destroyed the flavor of highway 66 snaking through the towns of the southwest. Half the places here on the broad empty street were boarded up. The food at The Lazy J was adequate, a little better than the fast-food chains out at the south edge of town near the interstate, but not by much.

"Hey, Enoch! You're back!" Brent was an affable guy, knew everybody in town and just about everything they were doing. "How did it go? Did you get a job?"

"No, nothing worked out." Enoch knew how to keep a secret, and he was not going to say anything about the lander in his back yard just yet. Telling Brent would be like telling the whole world. "I just got in early this morning. I'm starved, what's good today?"

"I think the stew is good. We got a good deal on buffalo meat last week, and it adds a little gamey flavor to the stew. You knew Frank was raising buffalo out on his spread? The range is a little drier this year, and he decided to thin his herd. Leaner than beef, probably better for your heart. If you care," he said with a wink. None of the ranchers in this part of the country had heart troubles like the sedentary folks back in California. Brent's grandfather sometimes came in for lunch, and he was as lean and spry as Brent. In his eighties, Enoch vaguely recalled.

"Sounds good. What kind of pie did Peg make today?"

"Apple and lemon. We have a couple slices of coconut left over from yesterday."

"I'll pass. Better not to eat too much, I don't want to get too tired for the drive home."

"You didn't sleep? I thought citified guys like you worked all night and slept all day. Whatcha been doing all day, if you got in so early this morning?" Sometimes Brent was nosy.

"I got involved checking out some, um, ideas about government." That wasn't too far off the truth. Enoch didn't like to fib unnecessarily, it required too much effort to keep his stories straight.

Stew was a good choice. Brent just scooped out a serving from the pot on the warmer. It had good flavor, too.

"Do you think they might have some of this buffalo meat at Sandy's?" Enoch asked. Sandy's is the local market in town where Enoch did most of his shopping. It wasn't as large as the chain discounter out the other side of town, but they worked harder to support the local growers. Buffalo steaks would be a nice variation.

"Don't know why not," Brent drawled. "We couldn't take near as much as Frank wanted to sell.

Enoch finished up and dropped a ten and a couple ones on the counter. A meal like this would have cost fifteen or twenty out on the coast. Either coast. Not that it mattered much. Lazir was right about Enoch having money, most of the locals here couldn't afford to tip so generously. Enoch figured it greased the wheels. "Hey, I gotta run. We can talk more next time, after I get caught up."

"Sure thing. Next time. Thanks, Enoch." Brent came over and started cleaning up the counter as Enoch headed for the door.

Sandy's was a couple blocks farther into the old part of town. Except for the discounter and the fast food joints out on the strip mall, the whole town rolled up their -- well, there weren't that many sidewalks -- anyway, pretty much everything closed down at sunset. The Lazy J did a late-night business in providing liquid entertainment to the local underemployed, but Enoch did not count himself among them. He still had a half hour or so to get his groceries before Sandy's closed.

Sandy's was catching up to the rest of the world. They'd gotten bar-code scanners for the checkers since Enoch moved into the area, and their new computer system now took ATM cards. Enoch decided to get his cash at the checkout and save another stop. The fatigue was rapidly growing on him, and he wanted to get back home and in bed.

He found a country music station on the radio for the trip home. Enoch hated country, but at least he wouldn't fall asleep on it. The setting sun in his eyes didn't help.

His thoughts again turned to the events of the day. Why did Lazir keep hammering on little moral faults? Everybody makes mistakes. Don't the Ghibbers understand that? It was like he wanted to make Enoch into some kind of pervert. Maybe, if he tried to do that again, Enoch could divert the conversation to something more profitable, like all the technology the Ghibbers could share with humanity. He wondered how to get past Lazir's reluctance to talk tech. Enoch is a technologist, it's what he did for a living.

Enoch took his exit off the interstate about the same time the radio static became annoying. He turned it off. The dirt road would take enough attention to keep him going the rest of the trip. It was getting dark. He wondered if the lander would be using their blue lights again tonight. He didn't see any as he turned into his drive. The water tower was dark.

He took his groceries in and shoved them, bag and all, into the refrigerator. Then went back out to look at the Ghibber lander before turning in. The flashlight was still on the computer desk where he'd left it the night before -- or was that morning? He took it with him, so he could see where he was going in the growing gloom.

When he got near the crest of the rise, his shirt started to glow again in the dark. They were using their lights, but apparently had added filters to block the visible blue light. Only the ultraviolet illuminated the area and made Enoch's shirt flouresce. Enoch couldn't see anything else, so he turned and went back to the house.

He remembered his laundry load, now long since finished, and transferred it to the dryer and set it for auto. He would be asleep by the time it finished, and the dryer buzz might not awaken him. The clothes would be wrinkled, but wearable. Enoch didn't care. Jeans and T-shirts are not expected to look crisp and starched.

He dropped his clothes on the floor and fell into bed. Then he remembered his cell phone needed charging. He dragged it out and plugged it in, then realized that he might oversleep, so he also set the alarm for 9:30. That should give him time to freshen up before Lazir arrived at ten. He did not remember getting back into bed.
<< prev next >>