Enoch was alone in his thoughts for a very long time.
After what seemed like a whole day, he got up and pulled the rest of his buffalo steak out of the freezer. It was still early afternoon, but he was getting hungry. He'd forgotten to ask if they were vegetarians on Ghadon. It probably didn't matter, their technology was certainly good enough to fabricate -- out of gold! -- any kind of food they wanted, without killing any animals.
The low afternoon sun was streaming in the still-open front door, when Enoch decided to try calling Grandpa again. He got through.
"Hey, Enoch! How's it going?" Grandpa was exuberant. "They ran me through an MRI today. It sounded like a jackhammer. Myrtle and your mom came with us, and doc told us that Alzheimers results in significant physiological changes to the brain, but none of those are present in me. He said I have the brain of a 30-year-old. Can you believe that? What did you put in the malt, anyway? Don't worry, I didn't tell them anything. They think it was probably a missed diagnosis. So they're going to keep he here over the weekend, just like you said, and if I'm still up to it, I'll go home Monday. After they run some more tests. I think they will be bringing in another specialist from the university."
Enoch wondered if he should tell him about Lazir. Maybe an indirect approach. "Grandpa, did you ever see the movie Contact? You know, about finding alien intelligence, and travelling through a portal to their distant planet?"
"Yeah, maybe I saw something like that on TV once. Kind of goofy, they didn't let you keep any proof of having been gone. I think they wanted it to resemble religious experiences, which they assume are all in your head."
"That's the one. Do you believe that could be true?"
"Naw, there's no such thing as aliens. They just made that up."
"I know they did, Grandpa, but what if there really were people on other planets, on distant solar systems? Suppose they came to visit?"
"Enoch, are you serious? You aren't spending too much time out in the Arizona -- or is that New Mexico -- sun, are you?"
"New Mexico. No, I have an alien space ship in my back yard. Look it doesn't matter if you want to believe me," -- Enoch almost choked on the word believe -- "but they have this awesome medicine. Like I said, it doesn't matter. I just want to ask you for some advice."
"No, seriously. They are inviting me to go with them. I respect your opinion. You're not a religious nutcake like dad..."
"Now wait a minute," the other voice interrupted. "Don't go denigrating your father. I won't hear it. Anyway, what makes you think I'm not a 'religious nutcake' just like him?"
"Well, at least you did real work for a living."
"Is that it, just because he's a preacher? A mighty fine one, too."
"OK, I'm sorry I said that." I'm not sorry I believe it, Enoch thought under his breath. "If an alien came to you and invited you and Grandma to go off with them to another planet, where you would live forever, would you go?"
"What's the catch?"
"I have to be good. No lies, no cheating on my taxes, can't drive over the speed limit, stuff like that."
"Is that bad? Why do I get the feeling there's something else here?"
"I can't come back."
"Welll..." he drawled, "it doesn't sound all that different from Heaven. Maybe I will get that offer one of these days. Except when my turn comes, I don't get to choose whether to go or not."
"But if you could choose," Enoch had a sinking feeling.
"That wouldn't be such a hard choice today. Well, last week. I'm curious to see what the docs come up with. You say it's alien medicine? You're right, I don't want to be telling such a tall tale to the docs here. I'm at the end of my life. It's over. They can come get me any time. You get to live forever? Playing a harp?"
"No, Grandpa, I get to program computers, or anything I like. It just has to be useful. Me playing a harp probably wouldn't qualify."
"Sounds like a great adventure. I wouldn't want to leave Myrtle, I mean your grandmother here alone, but she has your mother to look after her. God knows I haven't been able to do much for her lately. You don't have any entanglements, do you? You didn't up and get hitched while my lights were out, did you?"
"No, I'm still single. Even my girlfriend left me when I came here to New Mexico."
"So what's the problem?"
Maybe asking Grandpa wasn't such a great idea after all. He wouldn't understand. "No problem, just asking around. Thanks. Maybe I'll call back on Monday and see how your tests come out."
"Yeah, great to hear you. Call again."
Enoch wondered if any of his peer friends could offer good advice. He decided he did not want to put up with the ridicule if they thought he was going religious, about to join some Jim Jones cult.
Well it was, damn it. That's exactly what was happening. Except that these aliens were really there.
Or were they?
Enoch got up and went outside. The alien repeater was still on its tripod at the top of the rise. He walked over and up to it. It was almost a featureless box. He wondered what would happen if he just swiped it. Besides making them angry -- not a good idea, no telling what sort of punishment they could exact -- there wasn't a lot he could learn from it. Maybe what frequencies they communicate on, but radio was a known technology. Big whoop-de-doo. Battery technology? If it didn't self-destruct when somebody tried to open it up and examine it.
He'd almost forgotten about the lander. It was still not visible, but the late afternoon sun was casting long shadows on the clump of rocks and bushes where the lander had been. He went down to investigate, and almost tripped on the tarp.
It was smooth to his touch, with a slightly acrid odor, quite obnoxious. He wondered if that was intentional, to keep away stray animals. Then he noticed the shadow of his hand on the tarp. It didn't uniformly darken the shadow area, but the painted-on shadows of the pebbles stretched long away from the setting sun, and where his hand cast a shadow, the pebble shadows merged with it. Visually it behaved exactly like the rocky soil, except it felt smooth. It seemed to be dynamically altering its appearance to match what it was supposed to look like in that environment, including local lighting conditions. He tried to slip his fingers under the edge, but it was too close to the ground and too stiff to lift. If he looked closely, he could see the edge, at one place matching what Enoch supposed was the other half of a rock partly covered by it. It looked like a fine boundary line drawn across the landscape. Enoch could fit one finger under the edge where it rose up over that rock; he could feel the rest of the rock there under the tarp, but his finger just sort of disappeared at that fine line. It was an amazing optical illusion, maybe even computer controlled, like a hologram. He could shift his head and see around the rock in the image, just as he could on the part of the rock exposed.
But Enoch could not take the tarp, even if he wanted to. It simply wouldn't budge. It didn't have a hard surface like metal, it was just very stiff and heavy. Or maybe tied down firmly.
He tried walking on it. It didn't crunch under his feet the way the rocky ground did. The surface that he could feel with his feet rose more or less to match the apparent rocky soil, but unlike the rocks it looked like, he could not get any traction as the angle increased. He just lost his footing and slid down to the bottom. He wanted to get closer to the shrubs and see, or rather feel, if the patches of sky behind them was illusion or real, but it was not to be.
He picked himself up and walked around the rise in the tarp, right at the edge of where he could keep from slipping down. It definitely was big enough to hide their lander, except that there was insufficient width to cover the wings. Maybe they were retracted. He never saw any opening, but that could have been hidden by the illusion.
Enoch walked back to the house and sat down again.
Fact: The aliens were real. They had alien technology unknown here on earth (for example, the camo tarp). His memories of talking to Lazir were not the raving hallucinations of madness, religious or otherwise. And Grandpa was healed.
Fact: They made him an offer to go with them and live forever.
What was that about the risk in belief? Maybe they were lying, maybe this was a prank. Or maybe they wanted a specimen to dissect, and Enoch was that specimen. If so, why didn't they just overpower him? They could do that if they wanted. That didn't make sense. If nothing else, Lazir was logical, more so than anybody Enoch had ever met. Logic did not favor any interpretation that made the offer less than genuine.
What about living forever? They obviously had the medical technology to do that, too. Grandpa was completely cured of all effects of old age. At least the mental effects; Enoch no longer had any reason to doubt they could do the same for his heart and for cancer or whatever. That part of the offer was also beyond doubt.
What about transport? Enoch called up the pictures he had taken the first morning, but could not make out the outline of a door on the far side of the lander, but from what he could remember, the door was too small for Enoch to fit through, except maybe sideways end-on. And then their atmosphere was toxic to humans (and vice-versa). They would have to prepare a special compartment for him. How long would the journey take? He had not asked. Not that it mattered. It was a small detail.
The big question was and remained religion. Enoch did not want religion, not his dad's, not theirs, not any religion. Religion is for feeble minds. And for Ghibbers. Maybe (he hoped) that was the same thing. It just didn't make sense.
And then there was this Ancient One, some kind of god. Did such a god really exist? Of course not! They seemed to think so, and had a fairly complete theology about him/her/it. He couldn't remember if they ever used a pronoun. Enoch wondered why they picked the same god as in the Bible. Was that a coincidence, or was there some shared history? Maybe they visited the earth thousands of years ago and planted these stories, which later became the Bible. It would also explain how they knew about human medicine. All those miracles in the Bible, they were probably Ghibber technology. It all made sense now.
Enoch didn't have to believe the fairy tale. Their offer still didn't make sense, but it couldn't be good. Why would they fabricate this elaborate crock of stories to get him to go with them? He was not going to buy it. He would tell Lazir in the morning.
Right now he wanted to get away, do something else, maybe just get drunk. He got in the car and drove to town.
The Lazy J was full and noisy, just what Enoch wanted. Because of his late lunch, Enoch was not very hungry. He found an empty seat at the bar. Brent came over with a cheery greeting. "What's up, doc? A little late to be out shopping, isn't it?"
"I'm not shopping. I need a drink."
"Whoa! You? Need a drink? What's the problem?"
"I don't want to talk about it. Give me something with some cojones. Whatever you have."
"That bad? Try this." Brent set a shot glass on the counter and filled it half full from a bottle whose label Enoch couldn't quite read.
Enoch picked up the glass and eyed it suspiciously. He was not used to drinking this stuff. They say alcohol is odorless, but Enoch could feel the hospital sting in his nostrils. The drink also had its own aroma, something he could not identify. He tried a sip. It definitely had some clout. That was what he was here for. He emptied the glass. It burned all the way down.
Brent was still standing there. "I have some fresh apple pie. Would you like a piece? Baked this afternoon."
"Yeah, let's do some pie." Enoch needed something to take the burn off. Brent knew his business.
The pie was good. Peg had a way with pie. This one was tall and full of apples, the crust flaky but not greasy. Enoch started to feel better. He got out a couple twenties and laid them on the counter. Brent came back, and Enoch pushed the empty glass toward him. "Let's ease up on the jet fuel on the next one."
"Sure. What do you like? Scotch?"
"Never did like the taste of it. Got something in a brandy?"
Brent eyed the money, then reached for a dark, opaque bottle and held it out for Enoch to read the label. "Like this?"
"I wouldn't know. Is it any good?"
"The best in the house. Not cheap. But we need a better glass for it." He took the shot glass away and replaced it with a snifter, then poured some in.
Enoch swirled it around and held it up to his nose. He liked the aroma much better. If he was going to get drunk, he should at least enjoy the process.
Brent took both twenties and replaced them with some smaller bills. It was expensive. He pointed to the half-eaten pie. "Finished?"
"I'm not very hungry. Great pie, though." Enoch sipped slowly. "Good stuff," he said to nobody in particular. Brent was already serving another patron.
Enoch looked at the bottles on the wall in front of him. Some were open, with some kind of dispenser nozzle; others, like the brandy, were stoppered. He looked around, at the neon light in the window, the curtains over the window, the coats on the coat rack. In the other direction, there was another neon sign -- a beer logo -- at the far end, and a dark hall leading to the restrooms. There would be a phone down that hall too, Enoch guessed. The smoke made it all hazy.
After a while Enoch reached the end of the brandy. He took out another couple of twenties and added them to the cash on the counter. Brent refilled his glass. Maybe a couple times, Enoch wasn't sure. Everything was getting hazy, not just the smoke at the far end.
Brent came back. "You want to talk about it?"
"Little green men," Enoch slurred. "Li'l green men came to take me away."
"You're putting me on. Have you been hitting the bottle at home, too?" Brent had a sense of humor. "Did they land their saucer in your back yard?"
"It wan't a saucer. They had an airplane. Big as your bar, from there" -- he motioned toward the window, and then back toward the restrooms -- "to there."
"So did you fight them off?" Brent was playing along with what he took to be a tall tale. He'd heard a lot of stories.
"No. They're nice. Cured Grandpa. Came to take me away. I'm not going."
"Good for you! Tell me about your Grandpa. Was he sick?"
"Alls, all-zim," Enoch had trouble pronouncing the word. "Old-Timers. Yeah, that's what he had, Old-Timers. They cured him."
"Your Grandpa, you didn't mention him before. Does he live near here?"
"In Arkasas. In a rest home. Nutty as a fruitcake until yesterday. I took him some Tree Alive medicine in this box..." Enoch held out his hands to show how big it was. He did not notice that the conversation in the bar had stopped. Everybody was listening. "They called it an 'energy conversion' to change gold into lead. I mean into other stuff, like medicine."
"The little green men did this?" Brent deadpanned.
"They gave me the box, I drove to Arkansas. Then I gave him the medicine in a chocolate malt. Grandpa loves chocolate malts. Snapped him right out. The docs gave him MIR -- no, that's MRY, you know, where they take pictures of your brain -- and said he had the brain of a 30-year-old. Grandpa is smarted than me now. Now the li'l green men -- they're not really green, silver with black helmets -- they want to take me away. I'm not going. Pour me another."
"I think you've had enough. Let me call you a cab." The background noise picked back up, talking about little green men in silver space-suits.
"Good ... idea. A cab. I'm not going."
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