All The Green Aliens
By Mona Morstein
Bill Maxwell waited patiently in the middle of the scrub desert northwest of Palmdale, California, on a fine Sunday afternoon. After having partnered with Ralph Hinkley for three years, he had developed a level-headed patience for Ralph's lack of punctuality. After all, Bill had had time management cemented in his head in the Army, and during his years of being an FBI agent. And while he had been able to direct his young alien gifted jammie wearing partner into fighting serious threats to the country and the world, he had not been successful in getting him to forgo his beach bum ways and show up on time when they came out to the desert in different cars. Bill considered that a decent enough trade-off. Fighting commies and world destruction did, he grudgingly admitted to himself, take precedence over punctuality.
As a result, Bill came prepared to these desert meetings. He had several crossword puzzles, from the newspaper and gun magazines, both of which he was actually very good at solving; he had some case files he could finish writing up; and, he had his own lunch, having long ago realized his 6'2, 175 pound appetite could not rely on Ralph's selective memory for sandwich making.
And, there was the desert to look at and feel relaxed in. It was a lovely day, 70 degrees, no wind, sunny. Bill, who was quite hot blooded by nature, felt just right in his beige trousers, black t-shirt and long-sleeve shirt, covered by a light jacket. Perfect weather for a perfect day outdoors, as long as trying to figure out a new power for Ralph didn't wreck his car.
Bill always enjoyed being outdoors, away from crowds and crime and bosses suspicious of him and his successful case solving, his "98 kill rate". He wouldn't tend to admit it, but he enjoyed seeing different sorts of birds, and rabbits and coyotes which twittered and pranced through nature. He enjoyed the wind on his face, and he enjoyed the idea of being self-sufficient, hiking, fishing, and making one's way in nature on one's own.
So, with a tolerant sigh, he leaned against the hood of his unmarked government issue Dodge Diplomat, and was pleased when he knew clue 12 down—French 8 round rifle made in early 1900s—was the "Lebel" rifle. Suddenly, his peripheral vision picked up a tall figure, around 100 yards away, walking towards him. Odd. There was no other cars in sight and in this part of the desert Bill and Ralph had only seen one or two other folks in the three years they'd been coming here to practice Ralph's suit powers. Knowing the need for absolute secrecy regarding Ralph's suit, Bill opened up his passenger side door, put his crossword on the seat, and took his binoculars out of the dashboard. Standing up his removed his aviator sunglasses, putting them in his shirt pocket, and took a look with the binoculars.
His mouth opened and his heart skipped a beat at what he saw. It was a green guy, an alien, walking towards him. But, a different kind of green guy: taller, bulkier. His suit and cape had the same insignia and form as did their smaller green guy benefactor, but it seemed to be black or at least a very dark blue. And the green guy was staring right at him….
Bill Maxwell was a courageous man. His service in Korea had proven it over and over again in harrowing battles, and his years as a Fed had confirmed it. Bill had been in more shoot-outs than any other Fed, or even more than his whole office of Fed coworkers put together; and he had never shied away from doing what he needed to capture criminals, from fisticuffs, to bullets. But, even after dealing with Ralph and the suit, and having met the green guy once, and seen their ship several times, the fact was aliens still scared the crap out of him. Their technology, their making dead guys speak, their taking living and dead people up into their ship for god knows what reason, their maybe taking him up one day for ever….yes, it scared him. And, those were the seemingly benign aliens, who had saved Ralph's life in that stasis machine after he had been shot, and who had given Ralph the suit, and made him Ralph's mentor/partner.
But, Bill sensed in his gut—and that intuition was almost always correct—that this alien was far from benevolent. He ran around the car and got in the driver's seat, thinking a retreat from the field was in order. After fumbling with his keys for a moment, he got it in the ignition and turned—the car wouldn't start. Didn't even turn over. He tried again and again, but the car was dead. The only time something like this happened out here was when an alien ship was near…
A wave of panic suffused Bill. He looked up into the sky, but couldn't see a ship anywhere. But, the car was stone cold dead. He reached for his communicator in his pocket, a small radio type device he had gotten from a CIA friend when he and Ralph were just pairing up, and pulled it out. Looking back, he saw the alien was only 100 feet away. He got up out of the car, ducked behind it, and pulled one of his guns from his double holster.
He spoke into the communicator, "Ralph, Ralph, come in. Come on, kid, are you there? I've got a Code Red scenario happening here."
Ralph's voice came back loud and clear. "Hey, Bill. What's going on?"
"Where are you?"
"Just passing Ruby's Diner. About 30 minutes away. What's going on?"
Ruby's diner was a restaurant they ate at now and then after a long afternoon in the desert, before the two hour drive back to Los Angeles. It was too far away. "Ralph, pull over, put the jammies on and fly on over here. My car's dead, and a big, green guy is walking toward me."
"Bill, what did you say? A big green what?"
"A big green guy, like our green guy, only bigger. Ralph, he's coming right at me—". Bill glanced over the car only to see empty space. And, then, the hairs on his head stood up; spinning around, he saw the alien standing right behind him. Bill stood up in fear, and stumbled back a few steps, ignoring Ralph's "Bill? Bill?" coming through the communicator. The alien stood an inch or two over his height, and his skin was a deep, forest green. His suit looked like Ralph's, but was indeed black and white in coloring. His head was the same reptilian look as was their green guy, but the eyes held malevolence in them, not kindness. No tears of sadness had ever dropped out of them.
Bill leveled his nine shot automatic gun at the alien. "Alright, hold it right there, you alien palm tree. Don't move. I'm with the FBI."
The alien spoke, slithering sounds, like a snake, which Bill could not possibly interpret. He took a menacingly step towards Bill and Bill fired, the bullet bouncing off the alien's chest. Bill had expected that, given Ralph's suit was also impervious to bullets, but still his heart sank. He aimed again for the alien's head as the alien took another couple of steps closer and the same futile result occurred.
Suddenly the alien was right in front of Bill, having moved the remaining fifteen feet in a flash. Bill inhaled in shock, as the alien grabbed hold of his neck, gripping it firmly enough to keep Bill from attempting to move, while grabbing the gun from Bill's hand, and crushing it, dropping it to ground. Bill put his hands on the alien's arms, fighting to break away, and got out a raspy "Ralph!" before the alien, still speaking in multi-toned hisses, thrust Bill's helpless body back roughly down on the trunk of the car and put his hand on Bill's forehead.
Driving down the road to Bill, Ralph heard something he had never imagined he would and which made him shake with horror—Bill's pain-wracked scream echoing throughout his ears. Ralph pulled his car over and holding the communicator in both hands, yelled "Bill! Bill!" into it, again and again, receiving no response. Opening up his car door, he ran to his trunk and pulled his suit out of it. The road wasn't too busy, but even if it had been, Ralph would not have cared who saw him. He stood by his car, changing his clothes as quickly as he could, knowing he could fly faster than drive.
Bill was in trouble, serious trouble, and he had to help him. It was odd how Bill had become such an important part of his life; well, it used to be odd, but over the years Ralph had seen so many positive aspects of his FBI friend that it overshadowed the, well, quirky blustering Bill tended to do. Bill cared, more than he could easily admit, or sometimes, more than he knew. He cared about kids and animals and even Italian delinquents like Tony Villacana, a student in Ralph's special needs class at Whitney High. He exhibited the finest heights of loyalty—to Ralph, to his older friends, to the FBI, the government, and his country. He was, simply, a very decent, good man, with a witty sense of humor all covered over with a couple of layers of flaws and eccentricities. And he was, without a doubt, Ralph's best friend. They had helped each other throughout the last three years too many times to count and while never openly mentioned, they would, if need be, die for one another.
Ralph threw his clothes into his car, locked it up, and with three running steps flew up into the air ten feet and then came crashing back down to Earth. A whole carload of people—dad, mom, two kids, and a dog—stared at him as they passed him by. Ralph didn't even see them. Calming himself down a little, he took a deep breath, and then ran and jumped up again. Within seconds he was soaring at three thousand feet above the ground, heading over to save his friend.
His mind….his memories…his life….being probed….his brain was torn open, shaken, ripped to pieces….he couldn't stop it….childhood….learning to speak, learning words…school….vocabulary, writing, reading….it was like he was there again, redoing his education, Mrs. Witters, 3rd grade, and what he learned was immediately evaporating out of his brain into another's….his life went day by day so fast, so chaotically it was like he was spinning a million miles an hour, and only various, random images could be seen through his dizzied eyes. It continued through his years as an FBI agent…his wife's death…Harlan going blind….pairing up with John Mackie….And in the background, so far away, someone was screaming….
Suddenly, Bill was let go and, his eyes blinking rapidly, his legs gave out and he slid down the trunk landing in a clump on the ground. The screaming stopped. Lights flashed in his brain, his vision wavered, and a migraine clamped down on his skull which was so intense it nearly brought tears to his eyes. He felt his body seize once or twice, and then lay there helpless, like a child in bed with the room on fire around it. All his secrets, all his fears, all which made him him, had been ripped out of the deep recesses of his soul, and put on parade for anyone to see. And, worst of all, an alien had been the witness.
If this was a power Ralph could obtain, Bill would never help him do so. It was awful. No one should ever go through this. No one.
"You are Bill Maxwell. You are the Second," a gravelly voice spoke over him.
Marshalling himself, Bill turned and looked up at the alien. He was speaking English, now. Had he learned how to from invading Bill's mind, from Bill's education memories? The alien continued, bending over Bill and again, grabbing hold of his neck, "Who is the First?"
"Don't know any second or first, pal," Bill croaked, the piercing pains in his head making him nauseous. "Who are you? What do you want?"
"I am here to destroy your planet. I destroy planets. Where is your First?"
Bill's traumatized mind was still astute enough to have an inkling that, Ralph, owner of the magic jammies, was translated from Hiss to English as the First, and he, Ralph's partner, was translated as the Second. He'd be damned if he spilled anything about Ralph to the Not So Jolly green giant.
"He's vacationing in Aruba. Loves that Reggae music."
The alien stared at him. "You're lying," he said as he put his hand back on Bill's forehead.
"No! Don't!" Bill begged, hating himself for doing so. It didn't matter. The mind probing began again, and little by little he gave up everything he knew about Ralph, the suit, Ralph's powers, and their little green guy. It took just a couple of minutes, and then, when the alien let go, Bill vomited on the sand, out of pain, wooziness, and his loathing for his inability to stop the flow of information. He had ratted out everything on Ralph.
With no effort at all, the alien lifted Bill onto his feet, holding up the shaking agent with his left hand, the right one holding onto Bill's left upper arm. "Your First is weak. You, humans, are weak. I will destroy your planet."
"Go to hell," Bill said.
"Your bodies are weak," the alien said, and as if to prove his point, his hand crushed Bill's arm, the humerus snapping into pieces. Bill's head lifted up as a yell of pain erupted unbidden from him. The alien moved down lower on his arm and crunched his ulna and radius bones. Bill screamed again and feebly tried to break free of the alien, his agony working against him as he felt himself close to passing out.
The alien looked up into the sky. "Your First approaches." He then returned his scorn to Bill. "I will not kill you here. Your worst fear is not being dead on Earth. Your worst fear is being part of the undead eternally on an alien ship. I will make your worst fear come true, while I destroy your First and your planet."
It was true, what the alien said, about Bill's worst fear. He had vacuumed out all the crevices in Bill's brain and correctly chosen the most terrifying worry, the one that sometimes kept Bill up, unable to sleep at night; the dreaded phobia of being dead, but alive, like his old partner John Mackie, in space, forever.
With his hateful pronouncement proclaimed, the alien grabbed Bill's torso with two hands and threw him high into the sky, hundreds of feet into the air, his limbs flailing like he was a doll. At the apex of his flight, Bill felt himself surrounded by some force, an invisible pressure holding him immovable, and then he was shot upwards, winding up flashing through some portal to lay on a cold metal floor. He looked up and saw four metal androids floating above him, all of them bigger than the one that existed in the ship of their green guy. Tentacles from the four flew out of their casings and entwined around Bill's shoulders. With no sounds or fanfare, they lifted him off the ground, and dragging his feet behind him, carried him through the ship until they came to two sets of sliding doors, both tightly closed. Bill had no capacity to fight, no strength or will to do so. He barely heard the swoosh of a set of doors opening, he barely noticed more movement. But, he did notice when he was thrust forward harshly, flying into a small compartment, to hit against the far wall and collapse to the floor, as when one's body erupts in raw, agonizing pain it is always noticed.
Ralph was closing in on where Bill had told him to meet when Bill suddenly flew into the sky a half mile in front of him, and then disappeared in a flash. It had happened too quickly for Ralph to get to Bill, and Ralph wondered where he had gone. Was he still alive? Was an alien ship up there, invisible to sight? Is that why Bill's car hadn't been able to work? Had the alien killed Bill and taken him up….like Bill's ex-partner….like the dead guy on the highway….Ralph blinked away the tears that began at those thoughts. He refused to believe Bill was dead; Bill was too…resilient to die. The toughest sonnovagun Ralph ever met. The numerous times he had survived Ralph dropping or landing on him in their early attempts to fly together was proof of that!
Investigating the ship itself wouldn't make sense, as Ralph knew from Operation Spoilsport that at least their green guy had protection from snooping eyes, even suit wearing snooping eyes. Ralph decided checking out the big green guy who had made Bill scream was the priority. If he had hurt Bill….
Ralph landed roughly on the ground by the car, splatting into a clump of limber pines. Getting up, he brushed branches off him, and moved to the car. He found the communicator on the ground by the trunk and was sickened to see what appeared to be vomitus by it. He felt drawn to the trunk, a vibe was coming from it, and he put his hands on it…a circle of clarity formed in his sight and he saw the larger, dark green alien with his hand on Bill's forehead….the energy associated with it flooded Ralph with revulsion, pain, and dismay. He brought away from it and pulled his hands off the trunk, wiping them down on his suit. Suddenly, a voice sounded behind him and he shot around.
A tall alien was there, dressed in Ralph's suit, but black. He must have been invisible when Ralph landed. "You are the First," he said.
"Who are you?" Ralph asked, not afraid of the reptilian invader, even though he stood a good six inches shorter than his foe, and his lean build clocked in fifty pounds lighter. Height and weight were variables unrelated to Ralph's ownership of the suit. His powers defied them. He had a certain poise in his skills now, after three years of working with, and being guided by Bill, and due to his own practice. He had confidence in his strength, his speed, his flying, his invisibility, his suit's impervious nature, his telekinesis skills. He was a force to be reckoned with, and so far, had not found anyone or anything equal to the protection and powers of his suit.
"I am the Champion. I am strong."
"Where are you from?"
The alien made a long hissing sound with a few various intonations. Ralph wasn't a master at Hissing Sound language, but if he recalled correctly, that answer sounded something like the answer their green guy had given them, eight months ago, when they had been on board his ship. Were they from the same planet?
"He is weak. Humans are weak. He is my prisoner. You are the First. You are weak. I will destroy you here. And then I will destroy your planet."
"You're not destroying anything, buddy. Give me back Bill, and get off our planet, if you know what's good for you."
The blow to his chest hit so suddenly, and with such unremitting strength, it took Ralph's breath away. He had a vague memory of the sheer force of the blow against his head when it had once hit a train, and that force was what it felt like landed against his chest; he shot backwards streaking passed Bill's car, landing two hundred feet away in a large divot in the ground, similar to his landing with the space shuttle. Even with the suit on, that had hurt! Ralph got up; the alien was far away and the next second he was once again in front of him. How did he move that quickly?—and a second blow struck Ralph solidly on the chin. The noise of the blow was like a plane breaking the speed of sound, and Ralph flew up into the air, landing one hundred feet away, the force of his landing creating a two foot hole. Stunning. Absolutely stunning. His jaw actually throbbed with pain. Ralph grew fearful. He had truly met a force to be reckoned he beat it?
The alien was upon him again, and this time, Ralph ducked, took a few steps and flew up into space. The alien followed him, having no trouble keeping up with, or following the dodging Ralph. Ralph focused hard and sped up to Mach 6, his eyes tearing, the skin on his face flapping, and the alien easily matched him. Ralph turned in a wide circle, heading back to the desert, and as they approached the area the alien wrapped his arms around Ralph and pulled him down out of the sky. They hit the ground at 120 mph, like an explosion wracked the area, as dirt and debris flew high into the air.
The dark green alien was the first one to arise. It was therefore quite surprised when a fist lashed out, striking it solidly on its cheek, and sending it tumbling into a boulder, its head actually fracturing the structure of it to pieces. As it began standing another blow from Ralph hit it in its abdomen, followed by a third to its face within a half second of the gut blow. The alien flew backwards again, digging a rut in the ground thirty feet long. It stood up, ominously staring at Ralph.
Ralph stared back. "Deal From Strength", Bill always said. He would deal from strength now. This was his planet. Ralph had saved it before and he had every intention of saving it again.
They ran at full speed into each other and the shaking of the ground when they collided felt like an earthquake. People in their homes up to twenty miles away heard the booming reverberation, and the windows in Bill's car shattered.
The battle continued on the ground, and in the air. When Ralph had a chance to think, he realized he had to take the fight away from people, away from the police, the National Guard, whomever would be called in to check out explosions, windows breaking, craters in the ground. But, a fist crashed into his ribs, sending a sharp pain into his human chest, made him realize that he had to survive before he could keep things secret.
Bill lay on the floor in a near fetal position, fading in and out of consciousness. Far away, he heard deep, booming sounds coming through the metal cell floor, which seemed to shake the ship a little. Abruptly, an electric shock coursed through his body. Spasming as it contracted his muscles, once more he cried out, and then the electricity passed and he continued to lie inert, allowing time to pass. The shocking repeated itself, causing Bill untold pain and anguish. After it passed, he once more lay limp on the floor. After several more episodes of this, something in Bill's mind made him realize the electrical shocks occurred with a seeming regularity. It was a puzzle to solve and Bill enjoyed puzzles. His mind pulled back from the depth of blackness to come alert once more.
Turning over very slowly, he positioned himself sitting up, leaning against a wall. His headache had faded until it was just like a ball peen hammer smacking regularly on his temples. He regretted not having a cold towel to place soothingly on his head, but at least the lesser pain allowed him to think more clearly. He also regretted not having a toothbrush, as the taste in his mouth was nasty as a result of his vomiting however long ago. He sighed, and looked around.
He was in a…cell…a jail. It was no more than six feet by six feet, but was eight feet high. A wall of blue electrical charges sizzled at the front of the cell, preventing anyone from seeing out or in. As he watched the wall for ten or so minutes, it seemed that the wall grew a little weaker, a little less shimmering and blazing. Suddenly, from above, the cell was filled with electricity and Bill spasmed forward, incapacitated to move or speak. This time he felt his heart skip a beat during the shock and after it passed it seemed to be pumping erratically.
The day just kept getting better and better.
Bill looked up and saw a mechanism at the top corner of his cell. It had a blue light on it, and Bill wondered if that was where the electricity came from. It looked like it was a metal box with a prod of some sort sticking out the front. If he could destroy that box….cunningly, Bill's eyes widened. Bill wasn't too knowledgeable about famous maxims, aside from his own favorites like "Deal From Strength", but even he knew the more obscure "Pride Goeth Before the Fall". He figured it had some religious connotations he didn't care to think about, but it sure seemed to fit this situation.
Whether the alien creep was too stupid or too prideful to realize Bill wore a double holster, Bill didn't know or care. But, the fact was that underneath his jacket he had another gun. And the metal box with the prod might very well be susceptible to lead bullets tearing it apart.
It was hard to get the gun out. It was the one under his right shoulder, to be used by his left hand. But, his left arm, swollen, black and blue and excruciatingly useless, could not be utilized in any way. It hung like a vestigial appendage off his shoulder. So, twisting his right arm and hand, he finally was able to pull out his second gun. It contained nine bullets and he had one extra clip in his right jacket pocket. Using his teeth, he pulled back on the automatic, to load a bullet into the chamber. Then, leaning back against the wall, on one knee, he was able to stand up. As he lifted his arm up, the metal box emitted a lightening like ray of electricity which danced throughout the cell striking Bill and curving around his body; he lost his balance and stumbled against the opposite wall, the gun firing as his hand contracted around the trigger. The bullet hit the floor and ricocheted around the metal cell, unhappily landing in Bill's right thigh. He would have paid more attention to that as he slid down the wall back to the floor if he hadn't been so focused on the arrhythmia flipping his heart up and down.
When the electrical impulse ended, Bill knew he had to get up and fire at the box before another shock was sent out. He didn't know how many more of them his ticker could take. He took some deep breaths to keep panic at bay. Still, sweat spilled from his body, dripping down off his face onto the floor. He looked at his leg, as blood oozed, but did not spurt, out. The bullet had entered the outside of the thigh, which was not so bad. All the major arteries and veins and nerves were on the inside. He thought he could handle the pain; he was familiar with bullet wounds. He knew them well. He had been shot, what, three-four times in the last three years? Yeah, his leg he could handle, but as his heart missed another beat, that caused grave concern.
Taking a deep breath, Bill pushed himself up off the floor, grunting loudly as he did so. Without pausing, he lifted his arm up, aimed at the metal box, and shot four bullets into it; the noise of the gun was deafening in the small cell. And then, the first positive thing happened that day, the first sign of hope—the blue light over the box faded out, and over the next few minutes, when the electrical wall guarded the entrance to his cell slowly died down, no more electricity came to recharge it. Twenty minutes later, Bill took tentative steps outside his cell, alert for floating robots, for dark, green guys, for any danger. What he saw, though, paralyzed him.
Stepping out into the corridor, Bill saw two rows of cells stretching up and down each side of the corridor—a bottom line of cells, and a top row of cells. There must have been a total of 80 cells on each side; 160 total. His left hand in his trousers pocket to keep his arm from moving much, Bill limped towards one of the cells across from his. The electrical wall was not so intense as his had been, and he was able to lean over and peek between the vertical lines of crackling blue and see…he stood up straight. A green guy! One of his type of green guys was behind the wall. The smaller, lighter skinned green guys, wearing the light green uniform. The ones with benevolent eyes. The green guy, languishing against the wall of his cell, was just as astonished to see him apparently, and sat up rigid, scooting forward to the wall of his cell. He began hissing loudly. Suddenly, reptilian movement occurred in innumerable cells and hissing sounds traveled all the way down the corridor, a veritable chorus of reptilian gossip grapevines.
It was even more amazing when Bill was able to pick up, fifteen cells away, a soft voice saying, quite clearly, "Maxwell."
After a couple of hours, Ralph was in trouble. There was no doubt about it. His eyebrows knitted together anxiously under his blond curls. The dark green alien was stronger and faster than him. He had mastered his suit better. He could hover in air. Exchanging blow for blow had left the green guy perhaps a little tired, but Ralph was bruised and sore, nearing exhaustion, and was sure he had a broken rib. The ground underneath where they flew was pocked with craters, and both police and some types of Army folks had arrived, investigating what was causing sonic type booms and all the destruction. Ralph had tried being invisible, but somehow the dark green guy could still perceive where he was, although Ralph couldn't discern the dark green guys location when he was see through clear. Since it took too much concentration for Ralph to maintain invisibility while also having to fly and fight, he had given it up, but now he worried he might be seen by those investigating the situation below. Plus, if he fell on anyone after being struck by a blow, he'd kill them.
It seemed that before the dark green alien was going to sow destruction on Earth, he was first committed to killing Ralph. This was a responsibility that froze Ralph's bones; he wished Bill was around for advice. Being all alone, Ralph realized how much he depended on Bill, his guidance, his friendship, his encouragement, his pushing Ralph to be the best he could. Right then, Bill's absence was a sore lack to Ralph.
But, he had to keep going; he had learned not to quit from Bill and damn he would not quit now. Not with Bill's life, his own life, and the life of his planet at stake. It was time to take this fight far away from Palmdale, though. Ralph leapt up into the air and accelerated again to Mach 6, knowing the green guy would follow. He went far out over the Pacific Ocean and it was there that the green guy grabbed hold of his legs, swung him around in a circle and let him go. Ralph came falling down out of the sky onto a deserted road on Palmyra Atoll, a little south of the Hawaiian islands. The cement fractured and on either side of Ralph's landing the road curved up like a snake and then smashed down again, clumps and shards of the road flying out decimating nearby trees. Ralph crawled out of the ten foot deep hole the force of his body created. The dark green alien swooped out of the sky, grabbing hold of Ralph's cape, choking Ralph as he was lifted off his feet. Twisting around, Ralph snagged the alien's arm, and he gripped it as hard as possible. Pain distorted the alien's face and he let go of the cape, but Ralph was not rewarded with a bone cracking. As the alien broke free, a thick tree trunk struck Ralph in the back, arching him backwards as he was shot high into the sky. Too high. The miles fell away as Ralph continued being pushed higher with the telekinesis guided tree acting like a rocket. He could not twist out of the way of the tree trunk! Could he survive in the airless void of outer space? Ralph and Bill had never considered sending Ralph into outer space—neither of them would risk his life just to test the suit.
Ralph closed his eyes as the freezing air pushed against his face and thought "white paper, white paper", as Bill has instructed him to do years ago, when he was first learning how to use his telekinesis powers. Focusing on blanking out his terror, Ralph visualized moving the tree trunk out of his back and with a final mental "oomph!", he was able to do so. He was free. Turning back from the stratosphere, wrapping his arm around the tree trunk so it didn't fall on anyone, Ralph dashed himself back to the atoll, relieved when there was air to breath and warmth against his body. He dropped the trunk when he saw he was over the ocean and no ships were below him.
He returned to the atoll, and landed with a resounding crash, rolling over a couple of times. When he got to his feet, he was exhausted. But, there in front of him was the alien, still apparently raring to go, and Ralph was, right now, the protector of the world. The only one who could save Pam, Bill, his mother, and six billion other people. How the dark green alien would destroy the world, Ralph didn't know for sure, but he knew the alien could do it. And would. He knew now his words were no idle threat. And, after dealing with the bikers who had attacked Bill and him, Ralph had learned that psychological babble simply did not work on many criminals; it required force and cunning against force. Ralph would not waste his time asking the alien "why" he wanted to destroy Earth, or what purpose it would serve. The alien was evil and would simply do evil things. Ralph simply had to stop him.
A boulder flew at him and Ralph dodged out of the way, only to have a second boulder crash into him. As he stumbled to a knee, he used telekinesis himself to send a five hundred pound chunk of road into the back of the alien. It soon became some sort of suit juggling act—both Ralph and the alien tossing inanimate objects at each other as they each attempted to avoid being hit. The air was rife with flying debris.
And, in his weakness and growing despair of failure, Ralph's concentration was waning.
Bill Maxwell had excellent hearing and when his name was said down the corridor, he either had actually heard it or he was hallucinating. Then, he heard it again, "Maxwell."
With his heart acting irregularly, Bill put his gun in his holster and wiped the sweat off his brow. He began limping down the corridor, leaving little drops of blood on the floor with each step. All of the cells on the ground floor contained the lighter, smaller green guys. When he had passed twelve cells, a voice floated from behind the blue electrical screen of the next one.
He went to the cell and looked in. "I'm Maxwell." He knew Ralph would call him stereotypical and crass, but in actuality, all the green creeps looked the same to him.
"I know," came the answer. The voice was weak, and as he watched, Bill saw electricity flow from the metal box in his cell, jolt the green guy, and shoot across to strengthen the entrance.
"Oh, boy, you get that, too."
"All the cells work the same way, though your charge was set at a much higher level. Ours just weakens us. Yours was set to eventually kill. How did you escape? No one ever has."
Bill perked up a bit knowing he had broken out of what no one else had. It was a good ego stroke after being unable to prevent the dark green creep from stealing his brain. He moved his jacket to the side to give the alien a view of his holstered gun. "I shot up the box and broke it."
Bill looked closely at the alien. "Are you the green g—Are you the, er, alien, who gave Ralph the suit and paired us up?"
"Yes. I have been watching Earth a long time. That is why I am finally able to speak your language."
"What's going on? Where's Ralph?"
"Ralph is going to die if you don't help us."
Bill stood up straight and rolled his right shoulder, as he did when something bothered him. He did not like anyone to talk about Ralph dying. "What are you talking about? He's got the suit."
"The alien on your planet has a better suit, and will kill Ralph, eventually. Then he will destroy your planet."
It was tough enough for Bill Maxwell to actually have to believe alien beings from other planets existed. The movies about aliens in the 1950s, as Ralph has once explained to him, were oftentimes metaphors for communist invasion into the US. Bill could understand that but his point was the movies were often scary, or idiotically stupid. No rational man, Korean War vet, FBI agent believed in little green aliens flying around. And yet, out of every single person in the US, he, Bill Maxwell had been chosen to see and work with aliens. Mysterious and confounding aliens who gave out magical suits and who stole away dead and living humans. Bill preferred to not think about them, even though his life was committed to doing the job they had set him and Ralph up to do.
And now, he had to hear about evil, dark green aliens. He didn't like the world, the universe, to be so confusing and dangerous. There were rules that were made up to keep things in order—you didn't break the law. If you did, you went to jail. FBI agents didn't turn traitor, didn't get greedy and steal money, didn't go corrupt, didn't breakdown into alcoholism; they stayed good guys. Bill liked simple, clean rules.
Aliens broke all the rules. Bill Maxwell just didn't like it. He was just an average guy, living an average life; he didn't need advanced technology, he didn't need folks invading his brain. Sure, he liked his kill rate, but he had been a damn fine agent before the suit. He didn't need any of this.
Wait, he was wrong. He needed one thing. He needed Ralph's friendship. He needed Ralph to stay alive.
Maxwell pulled himself together from his disturbing reverie. "What are you talking about?"
"I have no time to tell you the whole story now. Action is needed, not words. Your purview, Maxwell. You must set us all free. That is the only way your world will be saved."
"But, how did you, with your technology, get put in here?"
"Again, if we talk, Ralph will die. Have you heard the booms through the floor in your cell? That is the sound of battle between Ralph and our nemesis."
That is what those sounds had been? Ralph exchanging blows with that creep?
"Now, do you choose to learn all the details or save your First's life?"
Maxwell's face grew completely serious. "I choose to save Ralph."
"The control panel to inactivate all the electrical guards is by the doors. Those in the cells nearest have seen the code used when food is brought to us. Although they cannot speak English, my fellow men can communicate which row and column the codes are in by basic numbering." The alien held up one finger and said "One", held up two fingers and said "Two". "Math is math, no matter the language. Go down the hall to the control panel and set us free. We will then be able to save Ralph and your world."
Maxwell glanced down the forty feet to the panel, then, his intuition acting up, he stared back down at the green guy. "It's your fault, isn't it, what's happening?"
The alien closed his eyes briefly and then opened them again. "Yes, it is. Now let us make amends by setting us free."
Maxwell nodded his head and set off moving down the corridor, his leg aching, his arm so painful he had to fight tears of agony from coming into his eyes. He supposed there would be time later to know the details, if he was alive later. His heart jumped around in his chest; its beating hadn't gotten normal again even though he was no longer shocked regularly. Bill had a morbid curiosity about folks flopping down dead from heart attacks; a couple of men he knew who had been his age had done just that. When he got into a state of hypochondria, which perhaps was known to happen now and then, concerns for his pulse were oftentimes foremost. Of course, his pulse has always actually been fine, before. Now, with his pulse dancing the tango in his chest, he simply had to ignore it and keep going. Ralph would call it "ironic".
Bill tried to be nonchalant as he gimped down the hall, nevertheless his eyes snuck peeks at the cells as he passed them; all alien eyes were wholly on him. Well, it was nice to have a crowd cheering for him; even if they were green and had lizard heads and hissed now and then. "Go, geezer, go," Bill mumbled to himself.
He got to the control panel. The walk had tired him more than he had expected; looking back, the drops of blood marking his trail might be a main reason. The control panel had a set of squares, four rows by four columns, 16 total squares, each with some foreign, incomprehensible scribble on it. Bill turned to the green guy to his left, closest to the panel. It was a little hard to see the alien's hand through the electrical grid, but it was manageable. The green guy held up two fingers, and when Bill pointed to the second row, he then held up three fingers. Second row, third over. Bill pressed that square. Looking back at the alien he was given the signal "One-four", and Bill pressed the top row's fourth square. The next square was designated "three-three" and Bill pressed that one. Then came "Three-two".
Upon pressing the last square, a laser came out striking Bill in the middle of the chest. It shot him twenty-five feet backwards down the corridor, where he landed hard on his back. Vivid blue streaks of energy danced all over Bill, flicking around him like some mad scientist's coils in a Frankenstein movie. His body jerked awkwardly up and down, his cries of pain filling the corridor with high-pitched screams, and his clothes and skin sizzled from the radiant heat of the weapon. After a couple of minutes the flashes of the laser died away and Bill's body lay limp on the floor, his moans reduced in volume but still potent sounds to those in the cells. Hissing flooded the corridor as the green aliens again sent communication back and forth.
Maxwell lifted his head to view the carnage. It was all he could do, all he could move. The stench of burned skin and chest hair fill him with nausea. His chest, where the laser had initially hit, was charred black through his clothes in a circle four inches in diameter. Second degree burn blisters and dark redness were visible through his crisped clothes. It was terrible. The burns covered parts of his legs and right arm, portions of his torso and the right side of his face. His head flopped back down to the floor. Paula Hinkley would never call him handsome again. He couldn't remember the last time he cried. At his wife's death 10 years ago? Yet there, on the floor, his eyes watered from a mixture of pain and anger.
"Creeps…," Maxwell gasped, surprised he was still conscious, "…trying t' help."
"Maxwell, forgive us," said his green guy. "Our fellow man gave you the wrong signal by mistake."
The wrong signal. Maxwell would have laughed if it wasn't so hard to breathe. He was a roasted marshmallow because of a mistake. Because math was the same in any language.
"You must get up. You must try again. There will be no second mistake."
"Can't. Look…at me. Can't." It was impossible. Maxwell closed his eyes. He felt himself sinking down, way down, into a darkness which was not welcoming, which was not comforting.
"Your unwillingness to try again will be the death knell of Ralph Hinkley. It will not be our nemesis which kills him. It will be you."
No. That wasn't true. He had tried, but these burns...the searing pain was too over-whelming… He wouldn't kill Ralph. He couldn't do that. He'd give his life for him….but, he was still alive. He was still breathing. If he could save Ralph, save the planet, even if it meant blowing his heart up and moving his burned limbs, he had to try.
At that moment the doors to the corridor slid open and four menacing airborne robots came floating down the hall straight at Bill Maxwell. Like the nice robot in their green guy's ship, they had an eye of sorts on top of a stalk coming off the top of their main operating body. They had hands coming out of their middle and a little tail at their bottom. They were two or three times the size of the nice robot. They had no doubt been alerted to the failed jailbreak and the laser response. It was sheer professional reflex that took over then. Bill's right arm slid into the remnants of his jacket and he grabbed hold of his undamaged gun. He had five bullets left in it and the extra clip in his right jacket pocket. It was hard to move his burnt arm; he couldn't straighten it out fully. But it would work being bent. Just harder to aim….he'd have to let them get closer than he'd like.
As they neared him their tentacles once more exited from their main bodies. They would drag him back to his cell, he would die from the next electric shock, Ralph would be killed by the dark guy, and Earth would be destroyed. He could not allow that to occur.
Maxwell was a crack shot. It was hard shooting at folks with Ralph as a partner as Ralph was such a stickler for not really hurting people, and especially not killing them. No matter if they were trying to kill you. Even the best of shots could miss when aiming for fingers and toes, to assuage the peacenik intentions of his partner. Here, though, now, he was aiming at the heart of the machines.
Maxwell fired off five shots as the tentacles once more touched his shoulders. One each entered into a machine with the nearest machine to him getting two bullets. The bullets penetrated their casings and the robots stood still for a moment, their tentacles hanging down by their sides. It gave Bill the time to put his gun down on his charred chest, pull his extra clip from his jacket pocket, and with his mouth and good hand, get the clip in the gun, and a bullet in the chamber. Bill shot four more bullets, again one in each robot, and then four more, and like a miracle, the machines wavered in space like spinning tops running out of momentum, then fell down out of the air, landing in four piles beside Maxwell's body, their tentacles powerless. Smoke rose out of them and their individual eyes flickered dead. Maxwell lay back down on the floor filled with relief, exhausted by that minimal action, and before he could even begin to fight the sensation, he promptly passed out.
Bill was awakened by a loud chanting, and sounds of clapping. He went back to High School in his mind, running the ball to the noise of his school mates cheering him on as he dashed down the field, another touchdown, another game won due to his talent. Glory days. Where had those gone? He opened his eyes to a world of pain. He couldn't find anything on his body that didn't hurt and the pain was a smorgasbord of sensations: burning, aching, sharp, throbbing. Some part of him defined pretty much the whole category of pain. And his body felt heavy, like each inch weighed a hundred pounds.
Beyond that, he heard hissing, and pounding noise. He opened up his eyes and turned his head, slowly, to his left. He saw rows of aliens staring at him, making as much noise as they could, in their own language, in their own way, ostensibly to wake him up. As his eyes opened, silence befell the hall.
"Maxwell, you must stay awake. We have chosen you well for Second. Now, you must push yourself back to the control panel. No First has survived our nemesis for more than four hours. It is coming up on four hours now."
Four hours. How long had he been out? An hour? Two?
"Ralph will die soon. We can stop it. You must release us."
He had no strength to argue. He would do what he could. Bill made a few feeble attempts to sit up, and it was beyond his abilities. He didn't know how it would work to try to flip to a side. If he flipped over to his left side, he feared the pain of resting on his fractured arm would cause him to pass out again, but if he rocked to his good arm's side, it would be hard to rise up without the use of his left arm. Using his legs, he was able to slowly turn himself around in a 180 degree circle so that his head was now closer to the control panel than his feet. Accompanied by grunts and groans, he bent his legs and pushed himself forward towards the control panel. Little by little he passed the robots, and kept moving down the corridor. Halfway down his heart began beating more erratically, and piercing pains shot from his chest down his left arm. Sweat began pouring out of him, soaking his clothes, rolling off his face. As his heart worsened, his life energy left him, leaving him motionless on the floor.
So, this is what it feels like to have your ticker implode, Bill thought.
He closed his eyes and pictured Ralph; images of him flitted through his mind. The first time Ralph saved him-from being tortured with a cattle prod-not yet even knowing him. Catching him after he was shot in the arm and fell from the top of a building. Saving him from a tiger attack. Saving him from an armored car attack. Saving him from being thrown off a helicopter at 10,000 feet. Saving him from being killed by criminals in Las Vegas. Diving in front of a bullet meant for him. Telling Bill he needed him, he couldn't be manage the suit alone…and the other times, the fishing together, the barbecues, the laughter, the friendship…Uncle Bill…no quitting, Ralph, no quitting….
Bill pushed forward in a kind of trance, the focus being on his legs, on bending them, straightening them, and moving himself one more foot, one more step towards the panel. At some point, trailing blood, sweat and ooze from broken open burn blisters, Bill's head hit the wall. Lifting his head a little, Bill used his right arm and his legs to elevate his body up the wall, until he was in a sitting position. It was getting harder to breathe; the pain in his chest was increasing. He looked up, and saw the panel several feet above him—it seemed as high as Everest. He was going to have to stand.
Four hours. No one survived more than four hours. There was no time to wait. Marshalling the last vestiges of his strength, Maxwell struggled to his feet, his legs shaking with exertion, his right hand holding the wall, the friction of his palm against it extra help in standing. His heart pounded like a rabbit in his chest, jumping and leaping around. His rapid breathing didn't seem to get any air into his lungs. His burned skin broke being stretched with movement, and blisters spilled fluid down his limbs. "Oh, God," he sobbed, his nerves on fire. But, he made it up. Standing by the panel, he pressed the first three from memory: 2-3; 1-4; 3-3.
He turned to look at the green guy in the cell, but his vision was too blurred to see the alien. His head fell forward….it was over….then he heard the sound of hands being clapped together. Four times, pause, two times. Four times, pause, two times. Lifting his right arm, which shook badly with a tremor, Bill pressed 4-2 and then he sank down to the floor, his body finally giving out.
Hissing filled the corridor as eighty green aliens spilled out of their cells, their electrical guards deactivated. Some ran passed him; one knelt down beside him. Through his foggy vision, Bill could see it was his green guy. He reached out and grabbed hold of his tunic.
"Save him," Bill whispered hoarsely. "Bury me." His eyes closed and his body slumped to the floor, the green guy guiding it down gently.
"We shall do the former but not the latter," the green guy said. He directed several of his fellowmen to carry Bill to the stasis machine and to put him in there.
Now it was time to save Ralph Hinkley and this planet.
The atoll was nearly destroyed. It was pitted with craters, half the trees were gone, the roads were done to gravel. Ralph, on his hands and knees, had reached his limit. His suit was torn in places, his body was bruised, his ribs broken, his mind despondent. Drops of sweat flitted to the ground, turning tiny sections of dirt to mud. He couldn't do it. He couldn't stop this alien. He had given it all he could. He had fought as hard as he could for hours. It simply wasn't enough.
The alien came up to him, seeming none the worse for wear, aside from a bruise on his forehead and a slight limp. Ralph braced for another blow and it soon came. A kick to his side sent him spinning off the ground, and with no capacity to protect himself, the dark green alien grabbed hold of him and flew him over the ocean. A quick turn in trajectory and Ralph, in an unbreakable grip, was thrust down into the ocean, far below the surface of the water, the alien not letting him go. Ralph didn't know how far they went down, but he felt the pressure of the depths begin to crush him. Little by little, too, the lack of air began suffocating him and it wouldn't be long before he was forced to inhale a long lungful of water. He was going to drown. Ralph twisted futilely once or twice but to no avail. He saw the grin of the alien over his face, until the waters grew too dark to see anything…he thought of his wife, and his best friend…he had let them both down…the song "Eve of Destruction" haunted him….
His downward movement stopped abruptly, as the unbreakable grip encompassing him ceased. The alien had let him go for whatever reason, and as Ralph reached out to find him, he came across flailing limbs. Ralph took hold of an arm and sent his body hurtling upwards. He and the alien erupted out of the water in a thick spray of water and soared into the air. The alien was coughing and spitting up water; had he been injured worse than Ralph thought? One thousand feet above the atoll, carrying a passive dark green guy in his left arm, Ralph cocked his right arm back as he flew and then delivered the strongest blow he could to the alien's head.
What happened next was positively disgusting. The alien's head exploded into muck and gore, completely disintegrated by Ralph's strike. Blood and brains spattered Ralph. The alien's body broke apart; Ralph was left holding onto the alien's arm, while the rest of the dead, headless body was sent free falling back to Earth by the force of Ralph's punch. Ralph cried out, retching, and dropped the arm as well. Momentarily emotionally traumatized, Ralph lost his flight control and both him and the decapitated alien crashed down once more onto the atoll. The alien's body landed on a tree stump and was impaled deeply through his black suit by the sharpened remnants of the tree. Ralph hit the ground nearby on his stomach and slid for thirty feet before coming to a stop, some of his skin scraped off where his suit had been torn. His body aching and injured, Ralph turned and saw the dead alien hanging in the tree. He didn't know how it had happened, but it was over. He had saved the day. Resting his head on his arms, he gave in to his enervating, numbing fatigue. Ralph smiled, and as he hummed the song "A Beautiful Morning", he closed his eyes and let the peace of sleep descend.
The next thing Ralph knew he was standing up at home, talking to Bill, who was lounging on his sofa doing a crossword puzzle. "I could use some lighter fluid," he said, and then suddenly the scene dissolved away like a holograph and Ralph found himself standing in a bright room, with a hard, bare, metal table in it. He was dressed in his suit, but it was whole again. He palpated his chest and realized his ribs were no longer fractured; the bruises on his face were gone; his torn skin was healed; his energy was back. As his eyes opened widely, the sliding doors opened up and he saw he was once again in the spaceship of their green guy. At least he hoped it was that green guy. He peered cautiously out and was greeted by the sight of the small, friendly floating robot, who gave him a translator to put in his ear. Ralph did so.
"Ralph, come out. We are pleased you are well." Ralph stepped out of the room and was greeted by the sight of three green guys, all a pale shade of green, and all smaller in stature than the dark, green alien. Their uniforms also were the pale green color Ralph had seen before in his only other trip to the spaceship. Ralph stepped out, full of questions, but the first one was easy to ask.
"Where's Bill? Is he here?"
"He is here." The main green guy walked Ralph over to a long and narrow window display—through it, Ralph could see Bill floating in a sea of speckled colors. Ralph put his hand on the window. "Bill," he said, and turned to the alien. "Is he alright?"
The green alien glanced at the other two behind him and then turned back to Ralph. "He is not alright. He was seriously injured releasing us from prison. We hope the stasis machine can save him."
"You 'hope'? But, you saved me and I was grievously injured. It only took a few seconds."
"Your injury was easy to fix. Maxwell's injuries were much more serious, and he is older than you. If he can survive and heal it will take days. That is a long time to be in stasis."
Ralph kept looking at his partner, floating naked in the streams of light. "But…", he felt himself choking up and cleared his throat to maintain control. Turning to the alien, all the questions bubbling inside him burst out, "What was all this about? We have a right to know. Who was that dark green alien? Why did he attack Bill and me? Why did he want to destroy Earth. How did I beat him? How did Bill get so injured?"
"Those are valid questions, Ralph Hinkley. Come over here and we will give you the answers."
Ralph sat before the three aliens. What he heard from them was an amazing and terribly tragic tale. It began with two species of green aliens sharing one planet; the small, pale, more intellectual and peaceful ones, and the dark green, taller ones, who upheld more warlike beliefs throughout the millennium, and who never could erase an intense loathing for the weaker species. The pale green aliens used technology to protect themselves and to create civilized societies which met the needs of all their population. At some point their scientists created the suits, which when charged initially, then was bonded to one, prescribed body, and made the individual super-powered in many ways, through the use of quantum physics and the mental direction of the wearer. Unfortunately, the warlike green species got the design to make their own suits, and after fifty years of research had made their suits stronger and more powerful. Attacking the land of their enemies, a world war ensued, which caused the annihilation of their planet and the death of billions of their fellow men. Only two hundred of the pale green people escaped in four hastily prepared spaceships, and only a few suits were salvaged. Only five of the dark green aliens escaped in one ship, with two of their more powerful suits.
The war had continued into space. The hatred of the dark green ones was so strong that they traveled throughout the galaxy, destroying any garden planet that the paler species might be able to settle upon.
Ralph spoke up. "That's why you said there were so few garden planets left. The dark, green aliens are destroying them."
The pale alien's eyes closed and he slowly nodded his head a few times.
"How many planets have they destroyed?"
"All they have reached. Eight, so far. Wiping out all living beings and all nature on the them."
"So you try to get ahead of them and give the suit to someone on the planet, hoping they can defeat the alien."
"Yes, but also to help each still living planet survive themselves. We have come across two other planets destroyed by their own errors, as ours was."
"That's why you chose Bill and me."
"Yes. From five of our enemies, three have been killed by the hands of the remaining two, in fights to control their suits. We"—the green guy looked to his other two, silent fellow men—"are not strong warriors. The ones of our species who could fight died in our world war. The best we can do is support the species of the world we come to protect. We had four suits; they are all in use on four planets in this galaxy."
"I'm the only one with a suit on Earth?"
"I wasn't winning the battle. In fact, I was thirty seconds from drowning, when the dark guy let go of me. It seemed he lost his suit's power because when I hit him…." The memory of what happened turned Ralph's stomach and he couldn't finish his sentence.
"He did lose his power. We were able to deactivate it after Maxwell released us from our cells. Thus, your blow was deadly to him."
The green alien's answer brought up another questions. "How did he imprison you in the first place?"
"He and his ship came upon us in a stealth manner than enabled him to incapacitate our ship and capture us."
"Us? How many live on this ship?"
"Fifty of us. It is larger than it appears from the ground. Its size is illusionary. This stealth attack was able to be successful by our enemy inventing a shield of invisibility to surround their ship. He had been successful with another of our ships, and so nearly one hundred of us were imprisoned on our enemy's ship. After he captured this ship, he used our computers to track down who the Second was on this planet. Finding Bill, he attacked him first, to discover your weaknesses before assailing you. This is the standard method our enemies use. When we were able to escape from our imprisonment, through the efforts of Bill Maxwell, we were able to break his code quickly and deactivate his suit's power. That is when you were able to overcome him. We transferred to our own vessel, blew up our enemy's ship by the fourth planet of your solar system and returned here. We found you and brought you up to the ship, put you in stasis for a few minutes, and here you are, whole and sound. We also transported up all the remains of our enemy, and thoroughly incinerated them." The alien paused for a moment. "You and your Second have done us a great service. There is only one of our enemy's left. One black suit left. We have hope they may finally, one day, be wiped out. They can no longer procreate with this one's death."
"What if the other one comes here?"
"I doubt she will. If the third planet's First was able to overcome one enemy, there is no reason the First cannot overcome her. She will probably stay away from Earth."
A somewhat tangential question came next. "Do anyone of you have names I can pronounce?"
The green guy smiled. "No. However, you may call me Eminence. I am in charge."
Ralph looked back to the stasis machine. "Now, all we have to do is get Bill whole and sound. Tell me, how bad are his injuries?"
"Very bad. Our enemy broke his left arm, shattered all three bones in two separate places. Nerves and muscles were also damaged. It would take a year to have it recover, if it ever did, with your medical science. He was also brain probed, which causes an immediate headache, but over time, initiates neuronal damage that is irreversible. He was burned deeply on 40 of his body, and had a bullet in his thigh. Last, his heart gave out on him due to exposure to electrical shocks and trauma."
Ralph stared at the alien, too distraught to say anything. Finally, he asked a question in a soft, desperate voice. "But, beings as injured as Bill have been cured before by the stasis machine, right?"
"Rarely, but yes. There is always hope. Ralph Hinkley, one of the reasons we chose Bill as your Second was due to his resiliency. We shall simply have to, as you humans say, wait and see."
Ralph stared at the floor as awful words poured from his mouth. "Listen, if he dies, let me have his body to bury on Earth. He doesn't want to be…dead…in space."
"We will allow you to bury him."
Ralph nodded. It was the least he could do.
The waiting and seeing turned out to be harder for Ralph than fighting the dark, green alien.
Days passed. Ralph chatted desultorily with random aliens now and then, his translator working perfectly. He spent hours staring at Bill in the stasis machine, the sparkling colors surrounding him as he floated supine in space. He didn't remember being in the machine himself, although it had only been for twenty or so seconds. He remembered the blinding white light beaming them up and then he was standing up watching Pam use way too much butter to cook a few eggs. Ralph hoped Bill was similarly unaware of where he was. He didn't know why the lights were sometimes redder, sometimes more blue, sometimes mixtures of numerous colors. Perhaps each of the colors indicated some sort of healing of a particular tissue—bone, brain, skin. It was impossible to understand on his own and Ralph didn't feel like asking about the specifics of the machine. Besides, the green guys overall didn't like discussing the nuances of their technology.
Ralph also watched the universe unfold in front of him from the large view screen at the front of the ship. Planets, nebula, comets—all the marvels of space were before him and none of it lifted his troubled soul. He had seen Bill's heroics played out on a console, as the prison corridor had been monitored and recorded. His Eminence had copied Bill's actions onto some sort of computer disc before blowing up the ship and instructed Ralph how to work the console. Ralph watched Bill's actions several times, until that coarse "Save him" was imprinted in his head. Not "Save the world" or "Save me", but "Save him." Ralph. His partner. That was the impetus Bill had used to force his devastatingly injured body to the control panel.
Ralph went back to staring at Bill through the stasis window. He could see the burns disfiguring Bill's once handsome face, and his short brown hair falling over his forehead. Come on, Bill, he thought. I flew with you on my back one night and when the wind shifted, I rolled out of control and dropped you on your head, cracking your skull. You had an actual skull fracture. You got up out of your hospital bed the next day and went home, and were back to work the day after that. That was two months before Operation Spoilsport, remember? I told you I didn't want to try carrying you again after the dead guy told us about Spoilsport, due to what happened the last time, and you told me the time before that was fine. True, I carried you five miles with no problem before the skull fracture. You had faith in me after the dead guy spoke, and insisted we try. I was so nervous I'd injure you once more in flight or on landing, I did two belly flops, hurting your hip, anyway. Boy, you sure were irritated by that… You got three broken ribs with those bikers and all punched up in the face and left the medical clinic-the coffin factory as you termed it-and went fearlessly right out after them. You got two more broken ribs when you were attacked on the beach. I've broken both your left and right hands. You got a broken elbow with that bizarre Sheila Redmond episode. You've been shot, what, three times, knocked unconscious several times, punched too many times to count. Your medical chart is inches thick; I've seen it. Yet, there you are, still by my side. Come on, Bill, you're indestructible. Even without a suit. You have to be.
I can't do this without you.
It hadn't been the most comfortable existence living on the ship. He slept on the hard, metal bed in the room he woke up in, and the bathroom facilities were…odd…to say the least. He was allowed off the ship, at midnight, right at the beginning, to use his suit to break into a small food store to pick up some non-perishable items and some books and magazines. The daily life and needs of the green guys were kept secret from him.
They were a strange race of beings, Ralph concluded.
To Ralph's joy and the gratification of his Eminence, Bill's body did heal. It took a very long five days, about the limit a body can survive in stasis, not given food or water and simply stimulated to regenerate tissue. Ralph left the ship a second time at midnight when Bill was ready to be woken up-this time, he broke into a men's clothing store and picked up a new outfit for him. The stasis machine would not be able to salvage his attire, burned so badly by the laser. He also placed a phone call to his wife, Pamela, who was frantic with worry, being told by the police her husband's car was abandoned by the side of the road with his clothes and wallet in it, and no word since. Ralph did not tell Pam the whole story, but simply stated that he and Bill had had a harrowing experience, but were okay and would soon be home. Pam told Ralph about the newspaper reporting strange sounds from the desert in Palmdale, and the odd and unaccountable destruction of the land. She had driven out to the desert to their meeting place, but was away from the area by the National Guard.
So, the Army had been called in. Good thing he took off to the atoll.
Bill awoke from a dreamless blackness to the scarred land of Korea. Bullets and mortars flew all around him and his, men stationed on a hill by the 38th parallel which was surrounded by thousands of Chinese soldiers. "Murphy, keep your head down!" he called out to the new kid, when suddenly, Korea and tanks and blood faded away and the next thing he knew he was lying on a cold, metal table in a very bright room. Ralph, dressed in regular clothes over his magic jammies, was standing by his side, laying a shirt over him.
"Welcome back, pardner," Ralph said, smiling and holding out his hand.
"Ralph! You're alive!" Bill said, grabbing Ralph's palm, and for a few seconds they held each other's hand tightly, not saying a word, glad to feel the warm flesh of their friend, glad each other was still alive Then, before embarrassment could set in, Ralph pulled Bill up into a sitting position and they let go.
"I'm alive, and one very dark green alien creep is dead. Bill, I punched his head off his body once his suit was deactivated. Gotta say I'm still a little grossed out by it."
"He deserved it. Great going, kid! I knew you'd do it!"
Ralph wondered why he always felt like a happy little boy when Bill complimented him. It was funny, but, his ego did swell immensely from Bill's praise. However, he couldn't take all the acclaim. It was far from the truth. "Bill, I only was able to stop him because you got the green guys out of their cells so they could turn off his suit."
"Nah, Ralph, you would have crushed him, anyway."
Ralph grew somber. "No, I wouldn't have. I was 'this' close to drowning when the alien grew helpless," Ralph said, pinching his thumb and forefinger close together. "Look, I saw what happened to you. I saw you push yourself to get to the control panel." He left off saying "for me" to avoid being too maudlin. Ralph put his hand on Bill's left shoulder. "Thank you. Thank you very much. You're the best partner a guy could have."
Bill cleared his throat and looked away from Ralph, then rolled his right shoulder, and did a quick puckering of his lips; all body gestures Ralph recognized he performed when affection overtly arose between them and when Bill was undeniably appreciated by someone. Bill cleared his throat once more and then enough time had passed for Tough Guy Fed to kick back in. "What are you talking about? We're a team. You lead the charge and I'm rear guard. That's the way it works."
Ralph nodded in agreement. He had said what he needed to and neither of them tended to belay points of respect and admiration. Bill helped by naturally changing the subject.
"Geez, I'm really thirsty. Parched. Is there anything to drink around here?"
The aliens had told Ralph that Bill would wake up thirsty and hungry after his long fast in the stasis chamber. Although the chamber slowed down one's metabolism to allow a person to survive without nourishment longer than normal, while promoting cellular healing, once people were out of the chamber, their appetite and thirst would be evident. Ralph handed Bill a large decanter of water from a table the green guys had had the foresight to place in the room. Turning back to the little stand he said, "Here's the glass—", but Bill had already put the decanter to his mouth and was chugging down the cool liquid. He drank it all and handed the empty decanter back to Ralph. "Thanks. That's better."
Bill looked around the bare room and asked, "Are we on the pale green guy's ship?".
"Yup, we're on the pale green guy's ship, run by his Eminence, by the way," Ralph said. "We apparently can't pronounce their names."
"His Eminence? Why can't they just call themselves Bob and Fred, like regular folks."
"Bob and Fred Greenguy?"
"Well, hissing isn't much of a language." Bill's eyes then wandered down to gaze at his body as memories of the traumas he had gone through came pouring back into his consciousness. His hands ran over his skin where he had been terribly injured. He lightly rubbed his face and his torso, "The burns…", he mumbled; his hands covered his left chest, "…my heart…"; he bent and straightened his left arm, "…my arm…"; and last, he looked at his thigh, "…the bullet…"
"All better," Ralph said. He figured there was no point in mentioning Bill was also saved from brain damage. Bill's hypochondria tendencies, which Ralph admitted he sometimes shared, would not benefit from knowing his brain had been saved from permanent damage. "There's just one problem."
Bill looked down at his very lean torso, his ribs graphically visible. "Have I lost weight?"
"That's the problem. Yeah, you have, around twenty or so pounds."
Bill's eyes opened wide. "Twenty pounds?"
"Bill, you were in stasis for five days, and didn't receive any food or water. It takes a lot of calories to heal up bones and skin and hearts, the green guys explained. So, some weight loss is expected."
He frowned at his skinny body. "I look like I walked out of Auschwitz. And, geez, I'm starving." Bill looked around. "Any food in here? Do green guys eat burgers? What do reptiles eat? Insects? Little snakes?"
"Uh, I ate all the food I brought back up. After you get dressed, we'll say our good-byes, get off the ship and get a meal at Ruby's."
Coming out of his slightly disoriented post-stasis state, it dawned on Bill he was actually completely nude after Ralph mentioned him dressing and he saw the pleasant little airborne robot looking in the window of the room, his tiny artificial hand boisterously waving. Bill jumped up from the cold table, backed up against the wall, and held the shirt in front of his crotch. "Woh! How come I'm naked? You weren't naked after you were in the stasis machine."
"Your clothes were half burned up. Apparently the machine just finished the job." He pointed to trousers, briefs, t-shirt, and socks in a neat pile on a little metal counter. "I got these at the outskirts of Palmdale. I tried to take into account your weight loss. Your shoes are bloodied, but salvageable. They're on the floor."
Bill gazed at the clothes on the counter, then back at the amiable robot still waving, it's eye stalk seemingly staring at him, then back at the clothes.
"Bill, it's a robot. 'Sides, you were naked for five days in the stasis machine. Anyone on the ship could have seen you. In fact, you'll be pleased to know a couple of the female green aliens pulled up some chairs and—".
"That's not funny, Ralph!" He shooed the robot away with a couple of abrupt head shakes directing the obedient machine down the hall. Once the window reflected the lack of anyone, or anything else, around, Bill dressed hurriedly, setting the belt down to almost the last notch. "How am I going to explain to Carlisle why I lost 20 pounds in five days? Oh, no! Five days! It's going to be Friday tomorrow! I've got to make up some reason for skipping out on work so long."
"You could tell him you saved the world from destruction."
"He'll be satisfied if I just saved my car from destruction." Bill's head snapped around anxiously at Ralph. "Do you know what my car looks like?"
Ralph shrugged his shoulders and shook his head back and forth.
A loud growl rolled out from Bill's stomach and he actually grew a bit light-headed from low blood sugar. He really was famished. "Come on, Ralph, the green guys have got to have a refrigerator. It's not like there's supermarkets or Chinese food restaurants all over outer space. Maybe some fruit…I think I could even down a snake, you know, if it wasn't poisonous, if that's all they had. Not raw, but well done or medium rare. Isn't snake supposed to taste like chicken?"
It was times like this that Ralph loved Bill best. Ralph grinned widely, his eyes sparkling with delight. Bill noticed it and it made him suspicious. His eyes narrowed as he asked, "What's with that puppy dog face?"
"Nothing!" Ralph said, still grinning.
Bill wasn't wholly convinced. But as the door to the room rapidly slid open, Bill realized that he was probably going to meet his Eminence again and Ralph's goofiness fled from his mind. He stood up straight and shivered; he really hated being around aliens.
The robot came to him and gave him the translator. "But, his Eminence speaks English," Bill said.
"None of the other green guys do, though."
"Great, what are going to do, have a sing-a-long?" Bill put the translator in his ear.
The robot floated away in front of them, and as they walked slowly to the small crowd of green aliens in the main compartment of the spaceship, a keen idea hatched in Bill's brain. "Ralph, let's ask for another instruction book!", he whispered, putting his hand on his friend's chest to stop their progress.
"Oh, well, I kind of brought up getting another one when you were in stasis. I don't think that's going to happen."
"They think we're doing a good enough job without it, and….they're a little annoyed we've lost two of them already."
"You've lost two of them."
"Oh, that's helpful. Nice rear guard support."
They flashed each other a critical look of disapproval, and then Bill sighed resignedly. "Alright, alright. Too bad, though. You're lucky I'm too hungry to press the point." They resumed walking and just as they stood in front of the aliens, Bill murmured one more zinger out the side of his mouth. "I wonder how you'd lose a third one."
Ralph opened his mouth to speak, but before he could launch into a sentence which would have instructed his Eminence on some choice vernacular phraseology not often heard in civilized Earthly conversation, his Eminence greeted them both, and Ralph knew his chance had passed. He glared at Bill's ear to ear smirk, the one he did with his mouth closed, so that with his squared, lantern jaw he looked very much like Stanley Laurel.
It was a brief meeting between Ralph and a nervously sweating Bill, who really did hate meeting with aliens. The aliens thanked both Ralph and Bill for their help, and for killing their enemy. His Eminence assured both of the humans he would stay alert, and continue patrolling the Earth, ready to help them if necessary. In the meantime he had confidence they would continue to perform the exemplary work they had been doing.
Good-byes were said and Bill and Ralph were led back into the bright room by the little floating robot. A second later their translators fell to the room's floor as they disappeared into the white transporter beam, to land on solid Earth, their home planet, once again, thankfully not too far from Ruby's. The brilliant lights of the space ship blinded them until it zipped away silently into the limitless boundaries of space.
"So, what the heck was all that about, anyway?" Bill asked. He then began asking Ralph all the questions Ralph had asked the green guy.
"Have I got a story to tell you," Ralph said, patting Bill on the back, as they walked away towards the diner.
After a good, long meal at Ruby's, during which Bill thoroughly gorged himself, they called Pamela and she drove out to pick them up.
Ralph's car cost $25 to get back; it had been towed off the road by the police.
Ralph was threatened with being fired by his principal for not showing up for five days, but hearing that Ralph's mother had fallen seriously ill helped the man accept Ralph's absence. Luckily a substitute teacher had been able to attend to his students, somewhat. He later heard the substitute would never teach his kids again, his letter to the principal calling them. "Obnoxious and Uncontrollable." Ralph lashed into his students over that report when he got back in the classroom.
Bill's car was also towed by orders of the National Guard, but to a mechanic's; the windows were replaced and the electrical system fixed. It was cheaper to the FBI to pay the repair bill than buy a new car, so overall, Carlisle wasn't too angry. Bill wondered if the Army was interested in him, but he was never personally contacted by anyone, so his concerns eventually died down. But, having friends all over the main government agencies, Bill did learn that the government's satellites had indeed discovered the baffling wreckage of Palmyra Atoll. Scientists and military men sent to the Atoll had not been successful in piecing together what had caused the rampant damage; it was listed as an inexplicable mystery.
Bill wrote a report stating he had gone to the desert on his day off to get away from the city; it relaxed him. Once in the desert, though, his car broke down, wouldn't even turn over, so he had hitched a ride back to Palmdale. When he was gone from the car its windows were blown out, either, he guessed, from a mini-tornado or maybe from one of those unexplained explosions. Anyway, it was sheer coincidence his car was anywhere near those weird craters.
Considering that a weatherman or two wondered if some unusual wind pressure systems had occurred in the desert by Palmdale, and since the booming sounds coming from the area had made the newspapers, Carlisle could not quite discount Bill's creative explanations, even though his teeth grated reading the report, which brought Bill and Ralph much secret amusement.
Bill's absence meant he faced the further suspicions from Carlisle and the concern of his coworkers—his saying he'd been ill with a bad case of the flu caught in Palmdale, to the extent of losing twenty pounds in the last week, could not be ignored. He had indeed lost the weight and a visit to his accommodating doctor gave him the justification and the medical note he needed, as well as a clean bill of health. The fact that he showed up looking strong and well, albeit way too lean, after apparently being so sick during the last week made him the object of gossip and stares by nearly everyone, something Maxwell wasn't really comfortable with, but knew he couldn't stop. Why people couldn't simply go about their own business he just didn't know.
It took a little over two months for Bill to gain the weight back via, mainly, eating a smorgasbord of tomato free burgers.
During the working day, Bill put aliens and space ships and brain probes as far out of his mind as possible. It was only sometimes during sleep, in nightmares, that they got the best of him and woke him choking in fear and drenched in perspiration. But, that was simply a burden he learned to deal with and which a shot of hard liquor helped appease. Otherwise, life was back to being about him and Ralph, the Counselor and the suit, just as it always should be.