The jangling of the phone woke me out of a sound sleep. I snorted groggily as I put the receiver to my ear.
"The President's plane is missing!" said a frantic voice.
"Oh my God!" I answered, sitting bolt upright. The clock on the night stand said it was 4:15 a.m. "Who is this?" I asked.
"Hey, wait a second," said the voice. "Did I dial 683-2751? In Bethesda?"
"Not quite," I answered. "You reversed the last two digits."
"Damn!" There was a pause. "Look," said the voice, "could you go back to sleep and forget this happened? I need to make another call right away."
"It's a little late for that, pal," I said. "How could you screw up on something this important?"
"It's not my regular duty. I'm covering for a buddy tonight."
"Sounds like your sergeant's stripes are in jeopardy," I said.
"Sir," the voice answered angrily, "I am a three-star general! You think we'd entrust this crucial job to a lowly enlisted man?"
"I'm sorry," I said. "You sound very young, that's all."
"That is because I keep myself in peak physical condition," said the voice. "I don't hang out in smoky nightclubs listening to drug-addicted horn players and their devil music."
"Well, I can't just go away," I said. "If the President's plane is really missing, it could mean we're on the brink of a national emergency. Nuclear holocaust."
"Oh, come on!" said the voice. "The Cold War is over. Who's gonna launch a nuclear strike against us these days? Burma?"
"It doesn't matter who fires the first missile," I pointed out. "This sounds like a good time to get my family down into the fallout shelter, at least until things settle down."
"You still have a fallout shelter?" The voice quivered slightly, as if the caller were suppressing a giggle.
"It came with the house," I said. "But the previous owner kept it well maintained."
"Look, mister," said the voice, "I got news for you. That little crash pad in your basement is a joke. It'd be like living in a septic tank."
"Oh, not at all," I said. "It's a nice shelter. Very roomy. It even has wall-to-wall carpeting."
"It's still gonna stink like a cowbarn after two days," the voice said. "The only way to do a fallout shelter is large-scale."
"Oh, like the big one at White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia? Is that where you're calling from?"
"Actually," said the voice, "White Sulphur Springs was for the slopeheads in Congress to hide out. Our shelters are even better. We got air conditioning, food service, jogging track. Hot-and-cold running girls. Ha! Just kidding about that part."
"You know," I said, getting a bit irritated by his attitude, "if I wanted to, I could hang up and call the news media about this. My next door neighbor works for CNN."
"Well, I'm about to hang up and deny I ever spoke with you," said the voice. "How are you gonna prove this conversation ever took place?"
"Because it's all being taped," I said. "I've been getting some prank calls lately, so I have a voice-activated recorder hooked up to this line. And you're coming in loud and clear."
"Damn!" There was another pause. "I bet you're lying," said the voice.
"Can you afford to take that chance?"
"All right. Tell ya what I'm gonna do. I got a lieutenant workin' in this department who does the best auto detailing you'll ever see in the mid-Atlantic region. How about you just forget we ever talked, and I'll send him over tomorrow to clean up your Toyota Land Cruiser."
"Why do you think I own a Land Cruiser?"
"I put a trace on the phone line a minute ago, and when we got your address I just swung one of our spy satellites into position fifty miles above your house. Oh, wait! That's not your driveway I'm lookin' at. Your car must be. . ."
"The Jeep Cherokee wagon," I said. "The Land Cruiser belongs to Bledsoe, my neighbor."
"Right, there we go," said the voice. "Hmm, for a second there I thought you had a little Jesus stuck on the dashboard, but now I can't quite make out who it is. Little bug-eyed bald man."
"That's a magnetic figurine of Homer Simpson," I said. "My daughter gave it to me for a birthday present."
"Who the dickens is Homer Simpson?"
"Don't you watch TV?" I asked.
"Not since my son went off to college. Say, is Marcus Welby still on?"
"I'm afraid not."
"Too bad. That was a hell of a show. And Robert Wagner, why, he was a role model for all of us."
"I think you mean Robert Young," I corrected.
"Yeah, the white-haired guy. He had class. Not like the punks on TV now. They just take their clothes off and grunt."
"Not to change the subject," I said, "but what do you think'll happen when people hear the President is missing?"
"Hold on a second." I could hear a muffled sound, like somebody's hand was covering the receiver. "Good news," said the voice a moment later. "We've got the plane back on radar. Some kinda interference in the upper atmosphere. All clear now."
"Tell me," I said, "who were you trying to call? I suppose the Vice-President is the first one to be notified."
"Yeah, right," said the voice, "and you probably still believe in the Easter bunny. Look, zip your lips and my detail man will be at your place at a.m. sharp. Don't ask him any questions, though. Officially, he doesn't even exist."
"Wait a minute," I said. "This sounds somewhat sinister. Are you military people engaged in a conspiracy to keep the Vice-President from assuming the role of Commander-in-Chief under the provisions of the twenty-fifth amendment to the Constitution?"
"You really think old Bubble-Top could handle the job? He makes Bozo the Clown look like Nobel-prize material."
"That's very disrespectful!" I admonished. "Aren't you the least bit concerned that I'm recording all of this?"
"Actually," said the voice, "I've been testing the phone line with sophisticated electronic scanners, and there's no indication that any recording device is being operated."
"Oh, the tape is running," I said emphatically. "You can count on that, for sure."
"Why, looky there! Your voice just hit a spike on our audio analyzer, which is a good indication that you're not being truthful. I have a feeling this discussion is over."
"Okay, fine, I made up the stuff about the tape recorder," I admitted. "But wasn't that pretty quick thinking on my part?"
"Yeah, you got a point," said the voice. "Tell you what. Since we did give you kind of a jolt, I'll let you have the car detailed anyway. Just 'cause I'm a nice person."
For some reason, I felt very tired after he hung up, totally stressed, and I promptly nodded off to sleep. When I woke up around noon, I poked my head out the bedroom window and saw Bledsoe standing next to his Land Cruiser. It was gleaming in the bright sunshine.
"An Army lieutenant showed up at eight o'clock this morning and detailed my car for free!" he exclaimed. "Who says the government never does anything right?!"
The Human Factor
I could see the woman approaching my secret cave headquarters from a distance. She was clearly visible on my security monitor: tall and athletic, dark-haired, quite attractive. For an Earth female, I should add.
"Hello? Is anyone in here?" She seemed unafraid as she called out into the forbidding silence of my hiding place.
"Elvira Mattingly. Come on down!" I bellowed. She jumped back in astonishment as I activated the neon energizers and filled the main room with a pulsing reddish glow.
"Oh my Lord!" she exclaimed. "You're a huge, free-floating brain creature!"
"Don't be too frightened," I said. "Actually, I've assumed the form of a large brain because it elicits a subconscious fear of the unknown and a respect for higher intelligence. It's like your great American president Knute Rockne once said: 'Make your opponents fear you, and respect you.' I like that."
"Knute Rockne was never President," she said, shaking her head emphatically. "He was the football coach at Notre Dame."
"Close enough," I conceded. "Now, Elvira, tell me a little about yourself. Where are you from?"
"I live in Beaverton," she said, "but I'm originally from Astoria. Oh, let's skip the happy talk. If you know my name, then you're obviously reading my mind. But your voice does have a familiar quality. It's putting me at ease right now."
"I learned English by listening to your primitive radio broadcasts and TV shows," I said. "After experimenting with several different speech patterns, I felt most comfortable imitating Bob Barker on The Price Is Right. He seems to connect with his audience on a truly visceral level."
"That's discouraging," she said. "You must have a pretty low opinion of humanity, based on what you've seen."
"Not at all," I answered. "For example, The Beverly Hillbillies and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air both focus on the positive effects of moving to a better neighborhood. Such an advanced idea is quite uncommon on most planets I've visited."
"Do you have a name?" she inquired.
"On my own world I am called Zarkon 77," I explained. "But you can call me Zark if you'd like. I assume you found my cave by following your husband on one of his nocturnal visits here."
"Yes, we need to talk about my husband," she agreed.
I flipped a switch, and a moment later one of the viewing screens lit up with the image of a handsome man wearing a white lab coat. He was sitting at a bench, looking into a microscope.
"There's Clifton, working hard as usual," I said. "My scanner is tuned to his body's electronic frequency, so I can watch him all the time and make sure he is doing my bidding. I'm not really telepathic at all. I got your name from spying on Cliff at home."
"I knew he was being controlled by something," Elvira said. "He started acting differently about six months ago. So did he just wander in here by accident, or what?"
"I used to trap my subjects up on the surface by having them sink into a vat of quicksand. It was a wonderfully dramatic procedure, but not very discreet. Now I use a more psychological approach. When I'm targeting men, I just tie a string to a bag of golf clubs and set it outside the cave entrance. It's like luring flies into a jar of honey."
"That's remarkable," Elvira said. "I don't think Clifton has ever played golf in his life."
"Doesn't matter," I said. "There's something about the clubs they can't resist. It's unique to your race."
"So how did you get him under your control?" she asked. "Did you create a duplicate Clifton inside a seed pod, like in Invasion of the Body Snatchers? Or is there some device you implanted into his brain?"
"The implant," I said. "It looks like a little tiny needle, inserted behind his right ear."
"That's what I thought," she nodded. "It took away all his emotions toward me, right? Like he was zombie-fied."
"Yes, exactly," I said. "It was unavoidable."
She looked back toward the viewing screen. Just then, Clifton took off his lab coat, lay down on the floor, and began doing one-handed push-ups.
"He can do those for hours now," Elvira said. "He never used to exercise at all. Is that something you planned?"
"Not really," I admitted. "Actually, the brain-control device has slipped out of adjustment recently. It doesn't interfere with my plans, but I guess it's been confusing for you. However, your husband is not totally devoid of feelings or motivation. "
"I'm not here to complain," she said. "In fact, some of the changes have been pleasantly surprising, like his new fascination with Cajun food and curry dishes. He's pretty much taken over the kitchen entirely."
"That's certainly a nice benefit," I said, "especially since he's going to be under my domination for quite awhile. I hope you weren't planning to plead for his release from my device."
"Oh no," she replied. "You see, this may sound odd, but Clifton and I weren't doing too well before you came into the picture. We were both on the rebound when we got married. We sort of rushed into it. Things had been getting pretty rocky."
"Are you saying you're happier now that Clifton is my slave?" I asked, puzzled.
"Let's just say this is working out pretty good for me," she answered. "I've got this, er, friend I've been seeing. And he doesn't really want any commitment, which is fine. I don't want a divorce if I can avoid it. Clifton's salary and job benefits are fabulous. So now that his emotions for me are gone, I don't have to worry about him getting jealous. I just wondered how long it could go on this way."
"Eventually the situation will change," I said. "My superiors do have something in mind for your planet."
"I figured that," she said. "So, can you tell me how much time I've got to enjoy my new, carefree lifestyle before -- well, what's your final goal? Invasion? Destruction of our environment so you can take over the world?"
"I honestly have no idea. Those decisions are classified," I said. "I'm just a mid-level functionary in this operation."
"I know that Clifton has been bringing you packages of steak and cans of gasoline for the past few months."
"Yes, I was instructed to collect data on food and fuel," I said. "But someone else analyzes all the information later. And as for how long this will go on, all I can say is we've been observing you for several decades. I'm actually set to be rotated back home, but my replacement hasn't shown up. He's three years overdue right now, so there may be a problem I don't know about."
"Can't you just call your planet?" she asked.
"Not a chance!" I exclaimed. "I mean, you never know who's eavesdropping these days. I have it on good authority that at least three other extra-terrestrial societies are snooping around this solar system. No, I just have to wait until someone shows up, and then I'll carry all the data back home personally."
"So, what you're saying is, I might have a lot of really good years ahead of me," she mused. "I was worried that, with everything looking up for me, it would all crash down soon. You ever get that feeling?"
"No, I don't," I said. "But since I have developed great empathy for you during this conversation, let me warn you about something. You know how I said my brain control device was a little out of adjustment?"
"Yes," she said, sounding uneasy.
"Well, there's another problem. The needle I stuck into your husband's brain is supposed to be permanent. But it may come loose and fall out after awhile."
"You're kidding!" She was definitely irked. "You can travel across space, but you can't make a brain implant that works right?"
"The whole machine was supposed to get serviced when my replacement arrived," I said, "so the maintenance schedule is all goofed up now. To be perfectly honest, the man I enslaved prior to your husband lasted about 18 months before the needle came out. Luckily he didn't die, but he did undergo some additional personality changes. He's now a very successful televangelist."
"No!" she said. "I will not let that happen. What can I do to make sure he stays under your control?"
"Avoid all contact sports," I recommended. "Especially roller hockey. And try to get him to wear a plastic cap on his head in the shower. Just make sure it covers his ears."
"I'll do the best I can," she said. "He seems pretty docile, but once in awhile he gets a little feisty."
On the video screen, Clifton had finished his push-ups and was lighting a small cigar.
"Now that's a new one," Elvira said. "He's never smoked since I've known him."
"He does now," I said. "Macanudos. They're not bad."
"Look," said Elvira, "I am giving you my sworn oath that I won't say anything about this. Can you at least let me know when your replacement gets here, in case he wants to change things?"
"Well, I can't promise," I said, "but yes, I'll try and tip you off. Anyway, for all I know, I could be stuck here for a good long time."
"Do you think your replacement had an accident?"
"Maybe. Or the bureaucrats back home may have cut off funding for this whole project. The budget battles are always a total pain in the you-know-where."
"So how long can you just keep waiting?" she asked.
"I won't get worried for at least another century," I said. "Our life spans are far longer than yours. And it's never boring either, especially here in Oregon. The whole micro-brewery trend has been amazing to watch. And I can tell you from personal experience that in this part of the galaxy there is nothing that tastes as good as cask-conditioned marionberry lager."
"I should go," she said. "It's going to be dark soon, and I won't be able to find my car. But, I was wondering . . . would you mind if I, well, touched you? I'm just, I've always been a very physical person."
"Be careful," I said. "Our body temperatures are a lot higher than you're used to."
Well, her fingers practically sent sparks flying when we made contact. Nothing like that has ever happened to me. After she left, I couldn't concentrate on anything. I know it's against regulations, but I'm going to phone her. Maybe she'll brush me off, but I don't think so. I have a good feeling. I think she's probably waiting for my call.