I was tweaking the images for the graphic novel debut tomorrow, and lost track of time this afternoon. Therefore you're getting stuck with another story from last year's holiday creative binge.
This one is science fiction, but it's probably a little closer to reality than humans in all of their arrogance are willing to admit... just a little something to ponder.
UNTITLED - by Jonathan K. Lee
It was a beautiful late-summer night in Southwestern Minnesota. The air was cool, with a slight breeze that made the trees whisper softly in the moonlight. This was vacation territory; someplace where a city dweller might come to get away from the suburban rat race. People even wrote stories about this kind of country, just to capture some bit of that tranquillity for the masses.
It was the perfect location for a bar.
Joe’s Bar and Grill sat off U.S. Highway 212, behind a small, gravel parking lot, which was mostly occupied. The soft notes of a country song spilled occasionally from the door as customers came and went. The old neon sign crackled for a moment, creating a flickering shadow on the ground.
Joe’s was the favorite hangout of the local farmers, but the owner was careful not to let his customers get rowdy. It was said that the man could tell when trouble was brewing, and he wouldn’t hesitate to break up a fight. This was one reason for the glowing reputation the bar had earned since its opening only a few months before. Another reason was the beer, which not only tasted great but was, truly, less filling, a special brew that the owner guarded with secrecy that the Pentagon would envy.
This night, though especially pleasant, was like most others around these parts. Some hours passed, and the bar’s patrons gradually dwindled down to a small group of regulars, the kind of guys that would stay until close and stagger home to their wives for a solid hour of being yelled at. It was a local tradition of sorts, and the people involved would have it no other way.
As the last of the out-of-towners left, a black, nondescript sedan pulled into the parking lot, switching its lights off as soon as it had left the road. The car came to a stop in the outermost space. Inside, the driver turned off the engine and pocketed the keys, all the while staring into the bar, past the small neon beer signs, past the flecks of dirt that encrusted the outside of the windows, to see the four men sitting at the bar.
The driver got out, shut and locked the car door. He looked out of place in a black business suit, complete with tie, and a long, black overcoat. The man was African-American, a little taller than average, at least five feet, eleven inches, with a smooth complexion and a serious expression. He moved slowly toward the door, walking with a long gait that made the fifty yard trip from his car a quick one. When he reached the door, the stranger paused, and reached into his coat, as though checking for his wallet. He nodded slightly to himself and stepped cautiously inside.
The bell on the door jingled as it was opened, and four heads snapped around all at once. The man stepped in, closed the door carefully behind him, and turned back to face the men, all of whom had puzzled looks on their faces. Who the hell is this guy?
“I’m sorry,” said the stranger. “Did I miss last call?” His voice was deep, and possessed a slight accent, just enough to make it obvious he wasn't from Minnesota.
“No,” said one of the men, a short, stocky fellow with a dark full beard. “No, we just ain’t used to seein’ you stockbroker types in here after your curfew.”
This drew a round of loud, raucous laughter from the other three barflies, who slapped their buddy on the back in appreciation of the joke.
The stranger, however, took no notice of the crack, and took a seat at the end of the bar, putting a few seats between himself and the four aces.
“I think you’ve made the wrong assumption, my friend,” he said as he sat. “I am not a stockbroker, nor would I want to be.”
The four men stopped laughing and stared at the man in disbelief. They had never heard anyone talk like that except on TV. Instead of poking fun at him, the short man decided to make a good impression.
“Mister, I’m gonna buy you a drink!” declared the bearded man. He extended his hand to the stranger, who shook it politely. “I’m Fred Swedborg. I own a bait shop down the road aways.”
“Pleased to meet you, Fred.” Replied the stranger. “My name is Payne. Thomas Payne.”
“Bond, James Bond” said the man seated next to Fred. The four men laughed again, and Payne allowed himself to smile slightly at the joke.
“This is Willy Svensson,” said Fred, indicating his humorous neighbor. Willy was a tall, wiry man, with pale skin and a pair of greasy overalls which betrayed his occupation as a mechanic. His face appeared to be dirty in a way, but he had friendly features and a pleasant demeanor. Willy leaned in front of Fred to shake Payne’s hand. The two men exchanged short greetings and Fred moved to the third man.
“This here is my cousin, Hub.” Hub stood, which in itself appeared to be a staggering achievement. Hub easily weighed three hundred pounds, and stood perhaps five foot eight. In his black and white checked flannel shirt and a pair of black jeans that “stacked” over his cowboy boots, Hub bore an uncanny resemblance to a soccer ball.
“Hub?” Payne inquired as he and the spherical Hub shook hands. “I’ve never heard that name before…”
Hub laughed. “It’s short for Hubert. As in Hubert Humphrey, the former President. My folks were always kind of proud of the fact that he was from here.”
The other three men chuckled under their breath as Payne smiled again and said “Indeed.”
Fred walked to the last man at the bar. “Last, but not least, we have Joe.”
Joe stood quickly and approached the stranger. As their eyes met, however, Joe’s demeanor changed. He suddenly seemed distant. He did, however, shake Payne’s hand.
“Joe Lyngstrad,” Joe stated plainly. There was clearly something about Payne he didn’t like. “Thomas Payne. Isn’t that the name of that Revolutionary writer?”
“You seem to be better read than your friends, Mr. Lyngstrad.”
“I crack a book once in a while.” Joe walked behind the bar and refilled his mug from the beer tap. “You don’t get to be a successful businessman without knowing a little bit about the people.”
“Indeed.” Payne took his seat and stared suspiciously at Joe.
“So, Tom,” blurted Willy. “What do you do when you aren’t digestin’ a dictionary?”
“I suppose you could call me an investigator.”
“Really? A P.I., like on the TV?”
“No,” said Payne, a slight laugh in his voice. “Paranormal investigations.”
Hub spoke next. “You mean like ghosts and goblins, shit like that?”
“Sometimes, yes. But mostly UFO’s.”
Joe looked up as Payne said this. “Aliens?”
“Yes, aliens” replied Payne. He watched Joe carefully for the next few seconds.
Joe looked over to the three locals and laughed.
“Well, we got us the goddamned X-Files here, boys!” The guys laughed quietly and looked at Payne, watching for a reaction.
Payne only smiled, the kind of smile that says Go to Hell…
“Well, Mr. Mulder,” said Joe sarcastically. “Are there any, ahem, any aliens around here tonight?” The men laughed again, and again Payne only smiled.
“Well,” said Joe impatiently. “What are you doin’ out here? Someone call in a report? Is E.T. in someone’s closet?”
“Something like that.”
Joe stopped laughing. “Are you serious?”
The other three men, who had been laughing for some time, now became quiet. Something about Payne’s attitude said that he wasn’t kidding.
“What have you heard, Tom?” asked Fred.
“Well, gentlemen. Over the past few months, there have been nearly a dozen sightings in this area. Lights in the sky, strange disruptions of natural phenomena, electrical fluctuations, increased impotence rates in men over forty…”
Everyone in the room sat up straight and cleared their throats.
“And you think all this stuff is related?” asked Hub.
“I don’t know about the impotence thing, but the rest of it, yes.” Joe poured a beer and set it in front of Payne. He looked up at Joe and, for a moment, the two men simply sat there, sizing each other up.
“How much do I owe you?”
Joe squinted slightly, as though he expected something more from Payne.
“It’s on the house.”
Payne shrugged and took a drink, then continued.
“Anyway, I decided to come here and check out the situation. I have a few leads…”
“You know,” blurted Fred. “A few weeks ago, me and Hub saw this light over the logging mill. It just kind of hung there, never moved.”
“They call it the moon, Fred” said Joe cynically. He still didn’t seem to buy Payne’s story.
“To Hell with you, Joe. I know what I saw. Ain’t I right, Hub?”
Joe rebutted Fred again. “Fred, you and Hub are so drunk by the time you leave here at night, you wouldn’t know a UFO if it flew up your ass!
“That’s another thing!” said Willy, after taking a drink from his beer. “What about the anal probes? Those alien bastards stick these hoses and stuff up there and check your vital statistics…”
“Don’t tighten those cheeks too soon, Willy” said Hub with a laugh. “They haven’t landed yet.”
“So,” said Payne. “Do you believe in UFO’s?”
Joe looked around. “Who, me?”
“Yes. Do you believe in UFO’s?”
“I don’t know. I never met one…”
“But you don’t discount the possibility?”
“I guess not. There’s lots of stars out there.”
“Yes. Let’s explore that idea.”
The guys moved closer. They had suddenly become very interested in what Payne had to say.
“Let’s say that there are one million stars like ours. There are almost certainly more, but that’s a start. Anyway, if each of these stars has a system of nine planets like our own, that makes…”
"Nine million planets,” breathed Fred.
“Thank you, Fred. And out of those nine million, only one is known to support life. Now, the law of averages almost guarantees that there should be more planets like our own Earth. Similar gravity, similar conditions, and so on. If these things are common to these planets, does it not stand to reason that they should support similar life forms as well?”
“You got a point there, Tom,” said Hub.
But Joe was ready with more cynicism.
“So they probably exist. But what makes you sure that they’d want to come here? Are they Elvis fans or somethin’?”
“Joe, please.” Payne pushed his empty mug toward Joe, who filled it up after a moment of hesitation. He nodded his thanks, and continued.
“Joe has a valid argument. These aliens, if they do exist, are surely aware of the vastness of space, as I just explained. Out of nine million planets, why choose Earth? Let me put it this way. When you go to a party, do you talk to city people or country people?”
“Country people, I guess.”
“Right. People with similar interests and backgrounds; people with whom you have something in common. You wouldn’t talk to a stockbroker all night, am I right?”
“Right, Tom. Right…” Fred chuckled to himself, remembering the comment he had made when Payne first arrived.
“Well,” continued Payne. “Perhaps it works the same way with our alien friends. They evolved in a similar fashion to ourselves, and like us, they’re not going to want to meet a bunch of bug-eyed monsters. They want to make contact with an alien species that is close in appearance and physiology to themselves.”
Payne looked straight at Joe. “Prejudice is human nature, isn’t it, Joe?”
Joe said nothing, but looked away and made a show of cleaning some glasses.
“Where was I? Oh, yes. The aliens want to meet someone like themselves. But they want to find a species that is technologically inferior…”
Willy interrupted him. “Why’s that?”
“Did you ever go on a job interview, Willy?”
“Well, it’s kind of like that. You want to be in charge, to have the upper hand in every situation. That makes it easier to dictate terms.”
Payne noticed Joe begin to pace as he wiped out the glasses. A squeak could be heard occasionally as the towel moved over the glass.
“You think they’re here to fight?”
Payne looked at Willy for a moment, deep in thought. “Fighting implies a chance of winning. No, if they want our planet, they’ll just take it…” He snapped his fingers. “Like that.”
A hush fell over the room.
“If they did want Earth, what would they do, exactly?”
Payne glanced at Joe, still cleaning the glasses. He had settled into one spot by the end of the bar.
“I can’t speak for the aliens,” Payne sighed. “But I can tell you what I would do. First, you need to know the enemy. That means reconnaissance. You have to gather as much intelligence on Earth as possible. This would entail monitoring of radio and television broadcasts, satellite transmissions, military activity, population and traffic flow, even the weather.
“The problem with this kind of information gathering is that you still don’t know what the people themselves are like. You need to go among them, to observe them closely. Now, if we continue to assume that these aliens are physiologically similar to us, then we can also assume that a lot of makeup and a little luck would prevent them from being noticed. In fact, in the larger cities, they could probably blend in quite easily with the normal human oddities.”
“So they could be walkin’ around out there?!” exclaimed Hub. “Working with us? Going to the store?"
“Buying worms at Fred’s bait shop, drinking Joe’s beer, paying eight-fifty to see Independence Day, the possibilities are endless,” said Payne.
“I don’t like the sound of that,” Fred muttered into his beer.
“Jesus H. Christ,” grunted Joe. “You guys need to quit drinkin! Do you hear what he’s sayin’? Aliens walkin’ around in the mall and eatin’ theater popcorn?”
“Are you saying that it’s impossible?” asked Payne.
“Yeah, Joe, how can you know?” added Willy. “Maybe one of us in an alien, huh? How about it, guys? Anyone here a spaceman?”
Payne grinned and shook his head. These outstate folk were funny.
Hub’s booming voice quieted the others’. “Let the man talk. I want to hear more of this.”
“Like hell,” shouted Joe. “This place closed nearly twenty minutes ago. Now get out of here, all of you. Go home and sleep this bullshit off.”
“Aww, Joe…” The guys said in unison.
“I mean it. Out!” Joe walked to the door and held it open. One by one, the locals skulked out into the night, dropping their car keys into Joe’s outstretched left hand.
The door closed and Joe turned back to face Payne, still seated comfortably at the bar.
“And what the hell are you still doing here?”
Payne stared into his drink for a moment before speaking.
“You didn’t really think I would leave just like that, did you?”
Joe walked back to the bar and took the seat next to Payne, who flashed a cautious glance in Joe’s direction.
“I thought you might…”
“You know why I’m really here.”
Joe sighed heavily. He had hoped to avoid a face to face confrontation.
“I have an idea.”
Payne turned toward Joe and spoke in a loud, clipped voice.
“Look, we both know what’s going to happen if you and I fail.”
Joe smiled slightly as he stood and went back behind the bar.
“You came here to stop it?” Joe asked the question as if he was amused by it.
Payne said nothing.
“Well, you’re too late.”
“It doesn’t have to be this way, you know.” Payne was speaking rapidly now, a sense of urgency in his voice.
“We have no choice. You people are so damned stubborn.” Joe poured two drinks as he talked. “But, I believe an agreement can be reached.”
“All you have to do is agree to the previous terms of surrender.”
Payne seemed hesitant. “I don’t know. I’ll have to talk to my superiors…”
“No. No superiors. Just you.”
“You’re saying that I alone will decide our fate?”
“When you put it that way, you make it sound dramatic.” Joe stared at Payne for a moment. “Your own history shows that it is up to the individual to change things, not society as a whole.”
“I cannot speak for all of humanity! What gives me the right?”
“You’re human! That gives you all the rights you need!”
Payne seemed surprised at Joe’s outburst.
“You don’t want this to happen either, do you?”
Joe bowed his head slightly. “It doesn’t matter what I think. I am here to represent my people, not myself.”
“I’m in the same position.”
Joe raised his eyes to Payne’s.
“Agree to the terms, and you will survive.”
Payne thought for a moment, then made his decision.
“No. There will be no surrender.”
“You’re sentencing your entire race to death. You do realize that?”
“We would be just as dead under the whip of taskmasters! If you know our history, then you know we cannot live as slaves. We must be free to live as we like, to make our own mistakes, to explore our own frontiers! Without the freedom to choose, we stagnate. We need the constant challenge, the constant risk. That’s what life is about, dammit! You take your chances with every decision you make. Sometimes you make the wrong one, and you lose. But when you make the right choice, and you win the pot, that’s when you really live.”
Payne stood and jabbed his finger at Joe.
“If you don’t know this by know, then we’ve won already. Either we lose, and die, or we win and send you packing. One way or another, we won’t go down without a fight.”
Joe allowed a small smile to form on his lips.
“Maybe you have a chance after all.”
Payne picked up one of the drinks and took a sip.
“That’s good.” He swirled the liquid around in the glass, studying it.
“It’s from home,” said Joe. “My family has made this for generations.”
“Maybe we’ll see your world someday.”
“As slaves?” asked Joe. “Or conquerors?”
Payne looked at this man with a sense of respect. They were very much alike, the two of them. Both peaceful, both with big jobs to do, and very little time to do them. If the two of them could get along, perhaps others could follow their example. Payne considered the question for a moment and found his answer easily.
The two men raised their glasses and drank, waiting for the sun to rise.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
See you tomorrow. Graphic novel debut!