Chapter Six
An Entirely Alien Approach

Dinner In a Strange Land

...... Lee held out a sheaf of closely typed papers. "Here's the final capital equipment inventory. Every desk, file, chair, table . . . and wastebasket. If there ever was an earlier listing, I don't have a copy."
...... Irwin accepted the papers and quickly leafed through them. "It doesn't matter. There aren't any large items involved here anyway. I'll just file the other . . . ."
...... Lee suddenly put up one hand and turned to the open doorway. "Hey! Did they close Devil's Island or something?" In a neutral tone, he added: "Excuse that, Dave, please."
...... "Hey yourself, black boy. You comin' over for dinner tonight?" The heavy baritone voice echoed in the hallway.
...... "You doing the cooking? Not Melynnda?" Laughing, Lee paused to gesture a command. "Get your Deutch hinny in here, Driver. You haven't met the auditor yet. And all he knows about you is those filthy magazines you've got in the back of your desk drawer."
...... Driver sauntered forward, seeming to fill the doorway. "If that's true, I'm coming in more often. Find out what I've been missing." He held out a callused hand. "Haven't had the pleasure. Just ignore Lee and I. We go on like this all the time. It livens up dull jobs for both of us."
...... "Glad to meet you." Irwin shook the hard hand. "I'm Dave."
...... "David Irwin from Auditing," Lee advised, shoving a stack of files to one side. "Meet Johann Wilhelm Driver, the guy who keeps the expense accounts in such a mess."
...... "Everyone around here calls me Driver," he acknowledged. "Pleased to meet you, Dave."
...... "And don't blame him for rummaging around in that junk heap you call a desk," Lee continued. "I found those mags when I was looking for serial numbers." He waved a finger in the air and looked at Irwin. "Driver's down on me, 'cause I'm one-hundred-percent Zulu warrior, and he's just a mongrel. Don't pay any attention to his name. He's really three-quarters enchilada and only a quarter sauerbraten."
...... "Zulu," Driver repeated, looking at the ceiling. "Last month, it was an estate near San Pedro de Macoris." He paused to swipe at his dark brown hair with one hand. "Serial numbers on a desk?"
...... "Inventory control numbers," Lee explained. "Capital equipment list. Ever seen a paper tag anywhere on your rubbish heap?"
...... "And, for your information," Driver stated, waving one hand, "that's one-quarter sauerbraten, two-quarters enchilada, and one-quarter pemmican. My maternal grandmother's ancestors were here a long time before you Johnnies-Come-Lately arrived." He shook his head. "No number tags on my desk. If there were, it wouldn't be paper, it'd be parchment. Back to my first question, are you coming over for dinner tonight?"
...... Lee nodded. "Be sure you stock enough beer. A third the size of your own allotment ought to be enough." He tapped the stack of file folders. "Seriously though, most of the office equipment is marked W.B.A. You were here when this building opened. Any idea what it means?"
...... "For this place? Probably, Wright Brothers Aerospace." Driver shoved at a filing cabinet, rocking it slightly. "All this came 'used' from government storage. The delivery people didn't have the face to admit who the previous owners were. But we were taking anything we could get, sight unseen. And glad to get that!" He offered his hand once more. "Pleased to have met you, Dave." Hesitating in the doorway, he added: "What did you do with the magazines? I have some time to kill later on."
...... "Gave them to Melynnda," Lee answered, grinning. "They were real antiques. I thought she'd get a laugh before she took them home for you. About dinner tonight, are you cooking? I think I'd like some real Mexican homecooking."
...... "In that case, you're out of luck. Everything's from the frozen food section of the supermarket. Which reminds me. You wouldn't happen to have any idea how it came about, that a package was delivered to my motel last week, containing a teddybear wearing an apron enscribed born to eat?" He hooked a thumb under his carved leather belt and gestured with his other hand.
...... "You'll have to check out your lady on that item," Lee laughed.
...... "That's already scheduled," he tossed back. Brushing it away with another quick gesture, he glanced at the clock. "I'm running late, and I've got to see Lynn. Again, glad to have met you, Dave. If there's anything I can do, just ask."
...... "Sometime, when you have the time, I'd like to talk to you about what you do," Irwin instantly requested. "Nothing official. Just my own curiosity. I've read some of the reports."
...... "One minute, Driver," Lee interrupted. "Didn't you say you'd be in tomorrow, Dave? Then you're staying here overnight."
...... "In that case, why don't you come over for dinner, also," Driver offered. "Lynn, Lee, and I. Nothing formal. You'd be very welcome."
...... "I wouldn't want to intrude," Irwin answered.
...... "He probably couldn't stand the food," Lee added immediately. "Not all of us are fire eaters. Ever seen melted ceramic?"
...... "It's not hot, until Lee dumps half a cup of pickled hot pepper slices on his," Driver advised, pointing a thumb for emphasis. "I know Lynn would like you to come. So would I. No trouble at all. Lynn doesn't like my Pureena Wetback Chow . . . ."
...... "Baja Soul!" Lee corrected.
...... "So I'm fixing a curried shrimp casserole for her," he finished over the interruption. "There'll be more than enough for both of you." He tilted his head toward Lee. "Two beers, and he'll do a comedy act for entertainment."
...... "Actually, I like Mexican food," Irwin admitted. "That'll be fine. Thanks. I'll be happy to come."
...... "I'm leaving my car here," Lee advised. "Melynnda can shoehorn both of us into her Mustang. She's bringing me back here, and I can drop you off at the motel. I go right past it."
...... "As to that, I have the Mustang," Driver allowed. "My next stop is the tire store. You two can ride over in the relative comfort of a Jeep Liberty. It has heavy duty springs, so put Lee in the back seat. I'll return both of you here afterward." He again looked at the clock. "And I do have to go! Until tonight." He turned and left, boot heels clicking on the tile hallway floor.
...... "I suppose we need to finish this," Lee decided. "We're leaving here at four-thirty on the dot for once. Finished or not!" He pulled the stack of file folders back in front of him and started searching for one.
...... Irwin glanced at the empty doorway, then sighed and started paging through the inventory list.

* * *

...... "You know, Driver, this is a nice little patio." Lee snatched at a falling brown leaf and missed. "Some days, I regret living on the top floor of my building." The metal-mesh lawn chair squeaked as he sat up. "Hey! How did that pipeline thing come out? I haven't seen the report yet. Only the bills!"
...... "It appears that the Alien abandoned the pipeline after the corner section was cut out." Driver paused to wave his beer bottle in a wide arc. "This is the last of the patio we'll see this year. Luckily, today was unseasonably warm, as the weather people say. I'll have to dismantle the little fountain, and put it and the lawn furniture away in the morning." A buzzing started, and he glanced up at the light fixture set into the brick wall.
...... "It's either unseasonably warm or unseasonably cold," Irwin added. "I wish somebody'd figure out what the climate is."
...... "You trying to tell me that digging that thing up at I-hate-to-remember-how-much wasn't really necessary?" Lee demanded in a loud voice. He looked at the beer bottle in his hand, drank the last swallow, stood, and glared up at the red starting-glow of the light. "Good thing you told me now," he muttered. "After dinner, I might have felt called upon to stomp out in protest. Never before dinner." He slid open the patio door.
...... "You should complain," Driver tossed back. "I had the choice of a good night's sleep in the company of a very attractive blonde, or of sitting out in the brush in the freezing rain, making like a brass monkey and watching that excavation." The light's silvery illumination grew, throwing the nearby trees into strong relief.
...... "Which you choose? And when's the divorce final? I'll want to ask Melynnda to marry me." Lee waved the empty bottle. "I'm going in for another of these Chinese beers. Anyone want anything?"
...... "I'm fine," Irwin answered.
...... "Same here," Driver agreed. "It's a good beer, but I had to look all over town to find a store which stocked it. And what would you have preferred? To leave that pipeline for the Alien to rebuild at its convenience? On consideration, do you think the Alien will build a replacement somewhere else? Or perhaps it already has other devices in other locations."
...... "You sure know how to make a guy feel good," Lee grumbled, as the patio door closed behind him.
...... "Sorry about the shop talk," Driver apologized. "Just ignore Lee and I, and enjoy the view. Such as it is." He sipped more beer, then waved toward the gently sloping lawn, just visible in the dusk. "Longweed Gardens, according to Lynn. The management seems to have found a lower mowing service bid than last time, hard as that is to believe. Scorched Earth Mowing . . . Not a Green Thing Left Standing." He shifted his lawn chair for more leg room. "But they're through for the season too."
...... "My apartment looks out over a parking lot," Irwin said. "Even a weed field is better." He perched his beer on the stacked-brick border wall. "It seems so incongruous! We sit here and talk, while out there somewhere, some kind of alien being is trying to take over the Earth."
...... "It hasn't succeeded yet, and apparently it's been working at it for quite some while. Its concept of time must be very different from ours." He offered the bowl of peanuts. "Somehow, I suspect the problem still will be there tomorrow."
...... "All of you take it so calmly." Irwin twisted in his chair and popped a nut into his mouth. "Worrying over budgets and auditors at one time, and out destroying some alien machine the next day. You all make it seem so ordinary. Like an ordinary job for a paycheck and fringe benefits and insurance and everything."
...... "Never take the name Paycheck in vain," Driver laughed. "I've known what it's like to be without one. I suppose we ought to consider going inside. This corner acts like a heat trap, but it still cools pretty fast when the sun goes down." He gestured with a handful of peanuts. "By the way, pardon the interruption, but just who does make out my paycheck? Not the bookkeeping outfit. I mean, who does Special Investigations report to ultimately?"
...... "It's part of the Space Surveillance program." Pausing, Irwin washed down the snack with a swallow of beer. "Your group is funded by the Department of Defense by way of the Department of the Navy. I suppose you're a special civilian nonbiddable contract from the Government under D.O.D. security."
...... "That does explain the little green i.d. card, which I was given and told never to use, on penalty of three reports and an oral hearing." He watched the traffic on the distant street. "I was just curious. As to my own duty, basically, one gets used to the idea of a colonization attempt by an alien intelligence . . . the same way one gets used foreign spies or muggers or whatever, if that's a man's job." He tapped the chair arm absently. "Please note I use the term intelligence very loosely. Personally, I don't have much of an understanding of what it is we're trying to outwit. I wonder if the word colonization is appropriate for what's been happening." He set aside the peanut dish and stood to stretch.
...... "I've read your reports," Irwin admitted. "I can't conceive of anything which would act that way. The whole affair is beyond my comprehension. It's so surrealistic!"
...... "The rubber lizard next door problem," Driver chuckled. "That's a description Lynn brought back from a staff meeting down at Headquarters."
...... "How's that?" Irwin inquired.
...... He settled back in his chair and snatched at a drifting leaf. "According to television, movies, and other fiction, an Alien . . . capital A of course . . . is some sort of beasty, with the heart of a friend or a foe. And absolutely with the soul of a Yuppie. Convenient, isn't it, how imaginary aliens behave exactly to the strict standards of human psychology and network programming needs." He waved the leaf by its stem. "It isn't so with this alien being. I wish it were!"
...... "Whatever you're battling doesn't behave to any rational standards," Irwin objected. He gestured with one hand and dropped a peanut.
...... "Rational is the nonoperative word," Driver pointed out, twisting the leaf's stem and examining it. "My adversary does not conform to human psychology. It thinks quite differently, if 'think' is a word which applies to alien life. Myself, I won't state if the creature is singular or plural. We could be battling a whole group of them, working in congress. But, since I need some referent for my own rational thought, I think of it as neuter, singular . . . and clever. Its actions, its decisions, and so on."
...... "But it must think!" Irwin argued. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair, and it squeaked in protest. "Or, how else could it do what it does?"
...... "Do ants think?" He waved the leaf toward the far tree. "Yet, there's a colony of ants at the base of that fir, which is a very complicated social and engineering achievement. Ants have a complex society, but do they think?" He tossed the leaf aside. "In a story I read, some engineers had trouble with a river flooding but couldn't afford a steel-and-concrete solution. So they bought a load of ash wood and dumped off pairs of beavers at suitable sites along the valley. Six months later, the problem was solved, including the maintenance aspects." He turned a palm upward. "I read about it in a legitimate technical journal, so I assume it's true. Yet beavers certainly can't be accused of thought . . . although they created and maintain a natural T.V.A."
...... He stood, walked two paces, and stopped at the edge of the concrete deck to look out into the darkness. "By the opposite side of the coin," he continued, "if we can't understand the psychology of the Alien, how can we expect it to understand our thoughts. Does it, whatever it is, even realize there's sentient life on this planet? Or is it trying to colonize what it believes to be an uninhabited land? It's meeting opposition, but does it recognize that opposition as intelligent? Or, is it merely trying to colonize an uninhabited planet against the instinctive opposition of the various indigenous animal species . . . from its point of view. Again, if colonization is the proper word for what it's trying to accomplish." He turned to gesture. "It may simply not recognize the presence of intelligent life on Earth. Some days, I'd agree."
...... "But a man-eating streetlight?" Irwin leaned forward with both hands upturned.
...... "Partially carnivorous, in any case." He ambled back, boots scraping on the rough concrete. "The Alien seems to have a very different degree and type of perception, as demonstrated by its elaborate disguises. And it does perceive things on Earth. I can guarantee that!" Easing back into a lawn chair, he put the empty bottle on the deck. "It does perceive, not necessarily see, to a very fine degree . . . as shown by its all too effective use of protective coloration. But it seems unable to differentiate between natural and artificial objects. Assuming that a bird's nest is natural, and this apartment building is artificial . . . which causes us to consider its choice of camouflage rather bizarre."
...... "So it can see a lake, but it can't determine between a beaver dam and a hydroelectric dam." Irwin slouched back and glared into the darkness.
...... "Correct," Driver agreed. "Both are the result of the nest-building instincts of two particular indigenous animal species."
...... "I've never thought of myself as an indigenous animal specie," Irwin remarked. He sipped the beer, found the bottle empty, and put it down.
...... "Which the human race is." He shrugged without pulling his hands from his jeans pockets. "It's merely the only specie which has left its paw marks on the moon. And everywhere on Earth." He paused for a laugh. "Cover the Earth is the motto of humanity, not just of a paint company. Although lately, Homo sapiens seems to want to cover it to standing-room only."
...... Accompanied by the rumble of the patio door, Lee stepped out onto the deck, a green bottle clutched in one hand. "I'm out of luck," he announced. "Melynnda already knows. And here I am ready to suggest a good divorce lawyer." He pushed his chair around with one polished shoe and sat down. "I didn't mention it, either. She told me. So you can't blame me for starting any intramural trouble. You don't know how good a woman you've got there, Driver." Suddenly he leaned forward. "Have I been drinking that much, or are those real chickens?"
...... Driver also leaned forward and clapped his hands once. The small flock scattered down the slope, indignant clucking sounds echoing between the buildings. "It's you who doesn't know how good a lady I've got," he retorted, leaning back again. "And I'm keeping it that way. Sure, she knows. We talk about everything. That's why our telephone bill's so high."
...... "Those were chickens, weren't they?" Lee continued with a sideways look at the dark lawn. "This is the middle of the town!"
...... "Those were Little Red and his harem," Driver advised with a laugh. "They live in the woods over beyond the side of the building, what little the developer left of it. Hidden Forest is an apt name for this suburb. You have to search exhaustively to locate any trees. I find it funny to hear a rooster crowing at daybreak here. Lynn hasn't noticed the humor in it yet, so don't mention them to her." He twisted to glance through the patio window.
...... Lee settled back and scowled for a minute. "It's the same way out my end of town too. Hey, Driver! How do you know those animated fryers on the hoof aren't something from the Alien? Just for example."
...... A chair rattled, as Irwin angled around to face the others.
...... "Just across our museum-miniature forest, is an old farmhouse." Driver thumbed to his left. "The guy there raised vegetables and Bantams as keepsakes of old times, when this was all a farm. Unfortunately, the old man went to the hospital, the Bantams escaped, he went to live with his married daughter, the house is up for sale, and the Bantams are nesting in the woods. Every so often, the flock goes walkabout, sometimes in the early evening, scratching for food under the parking lot lights." He stood again and freely gestured outward. "Now you see why the Alien has so much trouble with its covert operations. How do you explain a flock of birds which can't fly, originally from Bantam, Java, hiking across an asphalt lot in the middle of town?"
...... "I guess a streetlight is one of the most common things around," Irwin said half to himself. "Perfect camouflage." He looked up self-consciously. "I go past highway construction markers every day. I never give them a thought. And there's seagulls flying around the supermarket parking lot down a block from where I live."
...... "I got a brochure from a Texas advertising place offering llamas for sale," Lee added. "No idea how I got on that mailing list."
...... Irwin laughed quickly. "I often drive past a small ranch where the man keeps some horses. Two weeks ago, he had a llama there too. Had a halter on it to keep it from jumping the fence and getting onto the highway."
...... "Lynn tells me there's a hawk trying to nest on the top floor ledge of Headquarters building," Driver tossed in.
...... "Raccoons are scavenging in the trash bin out back of my building." Lee paused for a sip of beverage. "I wonder what my great-grandpappy would think of all this."
...... "If we find it peculiar, what must the Alien find it?" Driver paced a few steps, stopping beside the tiny fountain. "On top of that, I've often wondered how much, of what I've investigated, is not alien-oriented. Those streetlamps may have been an alien manifestation, but they were being cultivated by a human being. That pipeline might have been alien construction, or it might have been there for the past thousand years. Are we finding strange things merely because for the first time we're seriously looking? At this rate I wouldn't be surprised if I ran across the last living colony of Leprechauns!"
...... "While I hate to interrupt, I think I'll have to go in," Lee stated. "The chill's getting to me."
...... "I should have brought out my coat," Irwin agreed, standing.
...... "Dinner should be almost ready, anyway." Driver hunched down to pull the plug on the miniature patio fountain but stopped in mid-motion. "Now here's a good case in point. Just think about this gadget. In the center is a pump which pushes water into a tee and two short vertical stubs. Then both stubs end. The water rises another couple of inches on inertia and tumbles back into the tub to be pumped up again." He pulled the plug, and the sound stopped with a final loud splash. "It's purely an aesthetic decoration. And due to be drained and taken inside tomorrow. But what would Lee's ancestor think of it? Or the Alien?"
...... "Aesthetics don't cross human cultures very readily," Irwin agreed.
...... Driver nodded and straightened, pushing the extension cord out of the way with one boot heel. "What if the Alien can see the water, but can't hear the splashing. What impression would it have? What if the Alien can see only motion, moving parts, and nothing which is motionless. Or see in temperature differences. The water would appear to change color, because of the viscous friction and pump heat. What if the Alien can sense vibration but not see. What then?"
...... "I'll answer that after dinner," Lee replied, pushing the sliding door open. "Maybe! Maybe by then you'll have forgotten all about it." He led the way inside.
...... Melynnda looked out from the kitchen doorway. "Good. I was about to call you. Jay's burritoes are steaming nicely."

* * *

...... Roughly folding the paper napkin, Driver tucked it under his fork. "Now that was good cooking, if I do say so myself." He pushed his chair back. "Since the scullery maid is off tonight, I'll finish up."
...... "Since the scullery maid is off for the decade . . . ." Melynnda pushed him on the shoulder. "You stay put. It's my turn tonight." She gathered up a handful of stacked dishes and carried them to the kitchen.
...... Lee motioned to Irwin. "Three cents for your thoughts."
...... "Three?" Driver inquired, eyebrows raised.
...... "Penny adjusted for inflation," Lee answered.
...... "Sorry. Mind wandering," Irwin admitted. "I was thinking about what we were talking about before. How to fight this Alien."
...... "We do what seems obvious. One case at a time," Driver allowed. "Work on guess, and hope for the best. Until something better comes along. Civilization seems to have been that way for ten thousand years."
...... "Driver has his own theory, but he won't talk about it," Lee explained, draining the last from his coffee cup.
...... "Isn't there some way to communicate with the Alien?" Irwin requested. "Can't we somehow tell it to go away?"
...... "There's been people trying interspecies communication," Lee agreed, reaching for the coffee percolator. "Tryin' to talk to dolphins, and things like that. No luck so far." He refilled his cup. "The thing is, it takes someone trained in communications, and there aren't many in mankind. Even then, very few of them are explorers. There's nothing at all to suggest that the Alien is trained in communications."
...... "Or is inclined to listen," Driver added. He smiled at the clatter from the kitchen.
...... "That too." Lee stirred in a spoonful of sugar and pushed the bowl over next to the percolator. "For a message to get through, it'd take trained communicators on both sides. That seems kind of unlikely on the Alien's part." He sipped the brew, then stirred it again. "Personally, I have trouble communicating with that most well known of alien species . . . women."
...... "Agreed," Driver chuckled, making a long reach for the coffee. "Lynn tells me the same thing with appropriate changes." He glanced over his shoulder at the kitchen doorway, then refilled his coffee cup.
...... "But what are the other countries doing about this?" Irwin persisted.
...... "Don't know. I don't think even Melynnda knows." Lee paused for a swallow, then nodded. "Maybe other countries aren't experiencing this sort of thing. Maybe they haven't recognized it yet. Maybe they're doing what we are, and keeping it quiet too. That kind of information is way above our level of need-to-know."
...... "It's not occurring uniformly across our country, either," Driver said with a wave of one hand. "I haven't been to Hawaii yet, worse luck. Much less Puerto Rico or Guam or Alaska, to mention a few. So far, there isn't even a resident investigator assigned full-time to the West Coast."
...... "I was stationed in San Diego," Lee remarked. "Not sure alien action would be noticed out there."
...... "For that, I may give your dessert to Jay." Melynnda maneuvered a trayload of dishes through the doorway.
...... "Peach Melba?" Driver twisted back to the table. "What did I do to deserve this?"
...... "Among other things, you cleaned house for me today." She glanced up at a cobweb in the corner. "Mostly."
...... He glared at it and shrugged. "Well, cobs need a home too."
...... "And, since I decided against my better judgment to join in your Mexican Hotpot, I needed something to soothe my lacerated throat." She handed around the small glass dishes and slipped into her own chair. "For your information, Dave, Jay has a theory that the Alien is a bureaucrat."
...... "After all, that is the most common and most enduring occupation on Earth since the beginning of time." Driver hesitated, then set his spoon aside. "I'm assuming that, if we tear up the Alien's work often enough and generally cause enough trouble, the Alien will go over its equivalent of its budget, give up here, and move its operations elsewhere."
...... "That's as good an approach as any," Lee agreed, dabbing at a spilled drop of raspberry sauce.
...... "Until something better comes along. And I think it will," Driver continued. "As the files grow, correlations will start showing up. One or more of those correlations will be cause-and-effect." He tapped the table with a forefinger. "Then we can do some real work."
...... Lee raised a hand. "Hey! Speaking of growing records, when are you and Melynnda going on vacation? She's got to take some time off, or lose it."
...... "Yeah! When are we going on vacation, Jay?" She waved a spoonful of ice cream.
...... "Whenever you want." Driver looked up from his dessert dish. "And wherever Lee happens to send me at the time, because I won't be able to spare any time off for another two months. Until Jones gets out of the hospital and is rested up enough to come back to work."
...... "Then I'll take three days leave next month, Lee," Melynnda decided, "and take another week in the middle of July. I'll need it after the budget work."
...... Irwin tilted his head, hesitating. "You go out on assignments too?" he finally asked.
...... "Whenever I can," she answered. "We never manage time off together. So he stays home on his vacation, and I travel with him on mine. That's how we stay together, in spite of a traveling job, mismatched holidays, and emergency calls." She paused to smile. "And slinky blondes. It's made for some very interesting times."

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