John Strausbaugh, Stories

teens200

Illustration by Michael Gentile
(click image to enlarge)
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Teenagers from Earth!

 

 

 

 

1

 

 

Spin Martindale, the shy, brainy kid at Flat Hills Junior High, is sweeping up around Professor Winthrop's laboratory. Professor Winthrop is the smartest man in Flat Hills, or just about anywhere probably. His many inventions have made him incredibly wealthy, but he cares only about science. He puts the money into his projects, like the interstellar rocket ship out in the old silo behind his house. The Starbird is almost ready to fly. When the professor returns from his shopping trip into town, where he hopes to find a specific vacuum tube at Mortimer's TV & Radio Repair, Spin plans to ask him to take him along on the maiden voyage.

Spin has just dumped the last of his sweepings into the professor's atomic dustbin, which will convert them into electrical power to help run all the winking, whirring gizmos and contraptions that fill the laboratory. Suddenly a pair of juvenile delinquent dropouts from Flat Hills Senior High, Bud Grogan and Dash Ackerman, come running in with Dash's German Shepherd, Killer. They wear black leather jackets and dungaree trousers, and their hair is combed back in long, greasy ducktails. They just smashed the window of the town's jewelry store and grabbed a few fistfuls of necklaces and bracelets, and the cops are right behind them.

"You gotta hide us, kid," Bud Grogan says.

Spin starts to protest. Killer snarls at him. Turning from the window, Dash says, "Say, let's hide in that silo. They'll never look for us there."

"Sure, but what do we do with Brainy McSneezy here?" Bud says.

"You're right," Dash says. "He'll squeal for sure. Bring him along!"

With Killer growling behind, they drag Spin out of the laboratory and across the professor's back yard to the silo. The lock on the silo door is  complicated. The professor designed it to be burglar proof. Spin's the only other person who knows the combination, because he sweeps up inside. He's also the only one who knows there's a rocket ship in there. He really doesn't want to let Bud and Dash in there. But high, whining sirens approach, and Bud grabs the back of Spin's shirt, and Killer nips at the heels of his sneakers. He unlocks the door.

The Starbird takes up the whole inside of the silo, an elegant three-story needle of polished aluminum standing on a graceful four-finned tail.

Dash lets out a long whistle. "Dig this crazy jalopy, daddy-o! How'd you like to take that for a spin to Lover's Point?"

"Dummy up, you dope," Bud says. He yanks the back of Spin's shirt. "What is this, Brainy, some sort of rocket ship?"

"Y-yes," Spin stutters. "Well, it w-will be when it's finished."

"Looks plenty finished to me," Bud growls. He turns to Dash. "Give me a hand."

A pile of loose metal parts is by the door. Together, they shift it to block the entrance. Spin presses his back to the wall, with Killer snarling at his feet. There's no other way out of the silo.

An open elevator runs on rails up the silo wall to a ramp leading to a door in the Starbird's needle nose. Bud shoves Spin and they ride up. Outside the silo, they hear squealing tires and the sirens stop.

"Coppers are here, Bud," Dash says as Spin works the lock on the rocket's door.

"No kidding," Bud growls. "Make like a clam, both of you. Maybe they'll go look somewhere else."

They step into the rocket's control room, a circular space ringed with equipment. Molded plastic chairs face a control panel with viewscreens, like small television sets, above it.

"Say, get a load of the keen dashboard!" Dash grins. "And look, Bud. You can watch TV while you drive!"

Bud doesn't reply. He studies the controls. Spin can see he's the smart one of the team.

"Maybe we can use this flivver to get out of this mess," he says. "What's your name, kid?"

"S-spin."

"Well, S-spin, you look like a bright boy. Sure, I bet you can drive this crate."

"Me? Golly, no way!" Spin cries. He's lying to buy time. Actually, the Starbird has an automatic gyroscopic pilot rig. Once the coordinates are set, it practically flies itself.

Through the ship's hull, they can hear someone banging on the silo door. Bud looks at the control panel again.

"Doesn't look so complicated," he says. He points to a big red button. "That the on switch?"

"I told you, the professor hasn't finished her yet!" Spin says. "If we push the wrong button we could blow it up!"

"Says you," Bud growls.

He presses the button. They all hold their breath. Nothing happens.

"Guess the kid's telling it straight," Dash says.

At that moment, there is a rumble somewhere down deep in the ship, like a big furnace going on for the first time at the beginning of winter. The floor trembles under them. Spin's heart sinks.

Bud nods to himself, studying the controls. "Now what?" he mutters.

The radio in the control panel crackles on.

"Spin?" It's Professor Winthrop. "Spin, are you in there?"

"Professor, help!" Spin cries.

Dash whirls and claps his hand over Spin's mouth.

"Spin? Spin? What's happening? Do I hear the engines? Good gracious, you didn't touch the initializing button, did you?"

"That the big red one?" Bud drawls. "Sure we did. We're taking this bucket of bolts out for a little spin."

"Bud Grogan?" another man's voice grates. Spin recognizes Sheriff Burns. "I knew you were behind this. Is that no-account Dash Ackerman your wing-man?"

"Howdy, Sheriff!" Dash grins. "Nice day for a drive. Say Professor, how we put the top down on this crate?"

"You boys have no idea what you've done," Professor Winthrop moans. "Come out of there immediately!"

"Come in here and get us," Dash says.

"Listen to me, boys. You have exactly three minutes to come out of there. The Starbird is an interstellar rocket ship. You can't take her for a spin around town, or even around the world. It's set to go much, much farther."

"What, like the moon?" Dash grins. "Cool, daddy! I like cheese!"

"Knock it off," Bud says. "You said interstellar?"

"Do you know what that means?"

"I ain't a dope, Professor. There's no such thing as a rocket ship that can reach the stars."

"Yes, there is. Just one. And you've got two minutes to get out of her before she blasts off!"

"Aw, pull the other one and win a prize," Dash says.

"I'm deadly serious. That ship won't stop at the moon, young man, or even inside our solar system. I was testing the automatic gyro-pilot just last night. It's set for the star Zeta 2 Reticuli. My calculations indicate that Zeta 2 Reticuli has planets circling it, much like our own solar system. The fourth planet from the star, where Mars is in our system, may be earthlike."

"Can the gee-whiz malarkey, prof," Dash scowls. "Why, any dope can see the stars are, well, like far away!"

"Actually, by interstellar standards Zeta 2 Reticuli is a near neighbor," Professor Winthrop replies. "It's only 39 light-years from our sun."

"Yeah? What's a light-doohickey?" Dash asks.

"Only about six trillion miles," Spin says, breaking free of Dash's hand.

Dash looks startled. Then he waves the hand.

"Go sling that hash somewhere else, kiddo. This Zeta joint is 39 times six trillion miles from here? Why, that's..." He frowns in concentration.

"Almost 240 trillion miles," Bud mutters. "One way."

"Aw nuts," Dash scoffs. "No way this little apple crate can fly that far. It would take years!"

"By conventional propulsion you'd be correct," the professor says. "But the Starbird is designed to fly through the fifth dimension. It will make the trip in three days."

Now Bud scoffs. "The fifth dimension? Come off it, Professor Egghead."

"There's no time to explain. When the engines throttle up you'll be traveling much faster than the speed of light and these radio waves will never catch up. All I can tell you is, you boys are about to take a trip 39 light-years across space!"

"Well how do you turn this bucket off?" Dash cries.

"Yeah, Professor. Where's the off switch?" Bud says.

"It's not hooked up," the professor replies. "I just came from the shop where I bought the vacuum tube for it."

The seriousness of the situation finally dawns on Dash.

"Come on, Bud! Let's scram!"

"I'm afraid it's too late," Professor Winthrop says. "If you try to leave the ship now you'll still be in the silo when she blasts off. You're going whether you want to or not."

Bud and Dash fall silent.

"What happens when we get to the planet, Professor?" Spin asks.

"The ship will automatically brake and land. It will then take the stellar batteries exactly 26.6 hours to recharge. When they are fully charged, they'll trip the auto-ignition. Then the ship will automatically return to earth."

"Yeah," Sheriff Burns cuts in. "And guess who'll be waiting for you with the cuffs."

"Just be sure you're all on board 26.6 hours after you land," the professor advises, "or you'll be left behind!" He sighs over the radio. "Gosh, how I wish I were going with you! Do you boys understand the great adventure you're about to have? To be the first people from Earth to set foot on — "

At that moment, the sound of the engines abruptly rises to a thundering roar. A great invisible weight crushes Spin to the floor. The other boys topple as well. Even Killer is flattened.

"Golly, I'm going to outer space!" Spin thinks, just before he blacks out.


2



When Spin comes to the ship is oddly quiet. It doesn't even feel like it's moving, though he knows it's hurtling at an unimaginable speed through the fifth dimension. Dash and Killer are still out. Bud is seated at the console, studying the controls. Spin gets woozily to his feet and collapses in the seat next to him.

"Well if it ain't Brainy McSneezy, who told me not to push the big red button," Bud says. "I guess this is all a big adventure for you, Brainy. Bet you been dreaming about this trip a long time."

"Yeah," Spin says, "but not with you. Or them." He nods at Dash and Killer.

"Aw, Killer's all right once he gets to know you. Say, tell me more about this fifth dimension stuff."

"Well," Spin says, "you know that there are three spatial dimensions, right? Length, width and height. Professor Einstein says that time is the fourth dimension. We move through it like we move through space. Now Professor Winthrop has discovered a fifth dimension. It's wrapped all around the four-dimensional universe like a big, wrinkled blanket. Professor Winthrop designed the Starbird to escape the four dimensions and enter the fifth. Because it's all wrinkled and stuff, you can cross huge distances of normal space and time in a wink, then re-enter the universe trillions of miles from where you started out."

"You swallow that hooey?" Bud asks him.

"Well, in three days I guess we'll find out," Spin replies. "Why did you rob the jewelry store?"

"Because that's where the gold and jewels were, Brainy."

"I mean why are you a crook? Why didn't you stay in school and get a job? You're smart. I bet you could get a really keen job."

"Jobs are for squares and losers," Bud scowls. "They can't tie me down. I want to go places, see sights." He shrugs. "Guess I'm getting my wish."

"Until Sheriff Burns throws you in jail," Spin says.

For the next three days they mill around the confines of the ship. There's nothing to do and, because they're in the fifth dimension, nothing to see on the viewers. Spin uses some of the time trying to make friends with Killer. Killer is Dash's dog and has his personality and brains. The dog tolerates his presence, but Spin gives up trying to be pals with him.

Finally, a warning gong sounds. Spin tells the delinquents to strap themselves in for the braking maneuver. The braking engines kick on with a roar. A great weight falls on Spin again, but it's more bearable in the molded seat and he doesn't black out.

The viewscreens flicker on. A planet floats like a giant marble in the starry sky. Spin can see oceans and continents and whorled clouds, but the colors are all wrong. The oceans are purple, the land masses red, the clouds green.

"Holy Toledo!" Dash says. "I bet the chicks are blue!"

Killer barks.

"Keep it down, both of you," Bud says.

"Say kid, the professor pack any heaters on this crate?" Dash asks.

"What?"

"Rods, iron, guns. What if the natives are hostile?"

"I'm sure the professor thought of that," Spin says doubtfully. It's hard to imagine kindly old Professor Winthrop with a gun in his hands instead of a slide rule.

The planet's surface rushes up at them on the screens. The braking engines rumble and the ship shudders. Swirling green clouds fill the screens. The ship bucks and rattles. Killer barks.

"I been on smoother rides at the carnival," Dash says.

Then there's a loud bang and the ship lurches sideways. Killer skitters across the floor. Warning gongs sound. A jet of steam shoots out of a side panel.

"What was that?" Dash shouts over the bedlam.

"Hostile natives!" Bud yells back.

Spin grips the seat tight as the ship skitters and wobbles. On the screens the clouds part to show a lush jungle of reds and browns.

"We can't land in that mess!" Dash yelps.

"We don't have a choice!" Spin cries. "Hold on!"

The Starbird descends into the tropical forest. It settles on its tail with a bump. The engines and warning gongs cut off. Red vines and fronds fill the screens.

"Gosh, that was fun," Dash says sarcastically. He unstraps himself and stands. "Kid, where'd you say the guns are?"

He climbs the ladder through the floor to the next level and rummages through the lockers and chests down there. Spin finds the atmosphere gauges.

"We can breath the air," he tells Bud, "only it might smell like rotten eggs. There's sulfur in it."

Dash clambers back up wearing a crash helmet, with two pistols shoved in his pants.

"Let's go have a look-see!"

Bud eyes the necklaces straggling out of one of Dash's pants pockets. Dash grins and shrugs.

"For the local chicks, baby!"

"What if they're blue?" Spin says.

"As long as they're warm and soft, kid," Dash replies.

They climb down to the red jungle floor. The air is warm, damp and a little sulfurous. They don't see or hear any animals. The jungle is in fact oddly silent. Killer sniffs and barks at everything and stands close to Dash's legs. Spin walks around the ship.

"Oh no!" he cries.

The others run to him. They all look up at a hole the size of a softball punched into the lower part of the Starbird, with wisps of smoke trailing out of it.

"Bazooka!" Dash says.

Bud gives him a look.

"That's where the stellar batteries are!" Spin says.

He climbs back up into the ship, his heart pounding. A gauge confirms his fear. The batteries are recharging, but very slowly.

"We could be stuck here 26.6 days, not hours," he reports to the others.

"Oh great," Dash moans. "Hardly food in there for a week."

"You got the guns, chum," Bud says. "Get hunting. And you, kid, start looking for fruits and berries and stuff."

"Wait a minute, fellas," Spin says. "We're trillions of miles from earth. Everything here could be poisonous for all we know."

"Why we call you Brainy," Bud replies. "Okay, you're the taster."

They march through the carmine jungle and come to a clearing. In the green sky overhead Zeta 2 Reticuli looks smaller than our sun to Spin, but more intense, almost angry. He is squinting up at it when Killer raises his back, bares his fangs and growls at something rustling around at the edge of the clearing. Dash pulls his guns. Killer barks. Something in the trees barks back. Killer lifts his ears, tilts his head, then bounds across the clearing and into the scarlet jungle.

An instant later, he yelps and comes bounding back toward the boys, his tail between his legs. Something comes bounding out behind him. It is a lizardly thing about Killer's size but purple and scaly, with a squashed, toadlike face, a wide mouth full of sharp teeth, and a tail like a whip with nasty-looking barbs.

"Holy Toledo!" Dash cries. He fires a pistol wildly. The bullet crashes into the trees over the creature's head. The creature stops, sits in the red grass, licks its lips with a forked tongue, and wags its barbed tail.

"Don't shoot," Spin says. "I think it's friendly."

"Well of course it's friendly," a girl's voice calls out from the trees. "Whoever heard of a blog that wasn't?"

She emerges from the trees. The boys' jaws drop. She is perfectly naked, and perfectly built. And she is perfectly shiny and black.

"Please put your weapons away," she says to Dash. "There's no need of them here."

"Sorry," Bud says, stepping forward. "We're new around here, babe."

"Yes, we saw you arrive," she says. "I was sent to fetch you."

"I'm Bud. That's Dash and Spin and Killer."

"I am called Jaquee." She pats the blog's head. "This is Truk."

"Say," Dash says, "how come you speak our language?"

"I don't," she replies. "I'm reading your minds."

Dash claps his hand across his forehead.

"Hey, don't go rooting around in my thoughts!"

"What you care? She's already naked," Bud says.


"We come from a planet very far away," Spin says. "We call it Earth. What do you call this planet?"

"Floebee," she says.

"Are all the girls here like you?" Dash asks her.

She tilts her head. "In what way?"

"I mean, the same color?"

"Of course," she says. "What other color would they be?"

He throws up his hands.

"Oh that's just great. It's a whole planet of colored girls," he moans.

"Do the girls where you come from not have color?" she asks.

"Don't mind him," Bud says. "But no, Flat Hills girls sure don't have much color."

"Come, the others are anxious to see you," she says.

"Yeah," Dash mutters, "but are we anxious to see them?"


3



Jaquee's village is a circle of red thatched huts in the middle of a large clearing. A little girl playing with a blog sees them enter the clearing and runs screaming into a hut. All the villagers emerge and stare. They are all shiny black and naked.

Dash swats the back of Spin's head.

"Dope. You said this was another planet. It's just Africa."

Spins blushes and averts his eyes from all the nudity. He's seen pictures of girls in eeny weeny bikinis but this is ridiculous.

"Man, this burg is Nowheresville," Dash mutters. "Want to bet there ain't a jewelry store or jukebox on the whole planet?"

"Shut your trap and make with the nice," Bud tells him. "Remember, they can read our minds."

He turns to Jaquee.

"Take us to your leader, babe."

"Certainly," she says. "There he is."

A potbellied man with a big grin and sly eyes greets them warmly. His name is Krut. He invites them to a feast in the largest hut. Everyone sits on the ground and eats with their fingers. The boys forget Spin's warning about poison and dig right in.

"Why, this tastes just like a cheeseburger at Pop Kennedy's soda fountain!" Spin cries.

"Yeah, and this tastes like one of his malteds!" Dash cries, licking purple foam from his lip.

Jaquee smiles. "We are putting those tastes in your minds. You might not enjoy the actual taste of blog."

"This is blog? You mean like Truk?" Spin asks, suddenly queasy.

"You are displeased?"

"It's just that where we come from we don't eat our pets," he explains, embarrassed.

"You would not eat Killer?" she asks.

"Say, you keep your mitts off the pooch!" Dash cries.

She shrugs. "He would eat you."

"Well, of all the crazy ideas!" Dash huffs.

Krut frowns.

"Pipe down," Bud hisses. He turns to Jaquee. "Does everyone on this planet live like this?"

"Yes," she says, with a private smile that makes Spin even more uncomfortable.

After the feast, Krut claps his hands. Jaquee and another girl jump up and start to dance. They lock eyes with Bud and Dash. Their movements are very suggestive, even lewd.

Spin feels his face grow hot as a griddle and he blushes a deep carmine. He rises and rushes out of the hut. Night has fallen. Two moons are over the clearing, obscuring the stars. Not that he'd recognize any constellations. He suddenly feels so homesick that tears come to his eyes. He wishes Professor Winthrop was here instead of the juvenile delinquents. He hopes Mom and Dad aren't too worried about him.

Inside, the girls end their dance falling into the boys' laps. Dash seems to have gotten over his initial discomfiture at their shiny blackness.

"Baby, on my planet you're what we call one hot dish."

She giggles. "We might say the same about you!"

"Say, you got a Lovers' Point around here?"

"Your words are strange," she says, "but your thoughts are clear. Come."

Krut grins broadly, his sly eyes tracking the young couples as they leave the hut.

Outside, Spin cries, "Hey, where you think you're going?"

"Go have another malted, sonny," Dash says. "This is man's work."

"But what about the Starbird?"

"What about it?" Bud asks.

"Shouldn't somebody guard it?"

Bud claps his hand on Spin's shoulder.

"You're right again, Brainy. Scram."

The couples disappear into the jungle. Spin has no idea how to get back to the ship, and if he did he wouldn't venture alone through the dark jungle.

"Gosh darn it," he mutters. "Girls always make trouble."

He sighs and returns to the hut.


4



Next morning Spin wakes where he dozed off in the big hut. A new meal has been set before him. Truk the blog slurps noisily from one of the bowls. Krut sits cross-legged on the floor and grins at him.

"Eat."

"Golly, I'm still ready to burst from last night," Spin says.

"You are much smaller than your friends. You must eat to get big."

The food suddenly smells like ham and eggs. Even though Spin knows Krut has placed the thought in his mind, his mouth waters and his stomach growls.

"Where are my friends?"

"They are here," Krut grins. "They are fine. Very fine."

"We must go to our ship today," Spin frets.

"Why?"

"It was damaged. We have to make repairs before it takes off again."

"Don't worry," Krut says. "You are fine."

"Do you know who shot at us?"

"Don't worry," Krut says again.

"Gosh, these ham and eggs may be in my mind, but they sure are delicious!" Spin says.

Krut smiles. "Yes. Very fine."

Jaquee and Dash's girl enter the hut.

"Are my friends with you?" he asks.

Jaquee tilts her head and puts on a serious look.

"You would not call them that, Spin Martindale, if you saw their thoughts about you."

Spin sighs. "Yeah, I know Dash can be sort of a jerk. But Bud's all right down deep."

"I think you are much sweeter than they are," the other girl giggles.

Spin feels his face go hot again.

"You are fine," Krut grins. "All you boys, very fine."

Spin decides to go to the ship by himself. Dash and Bud wouldn't be much help anyway. Jaquee leads him.

When they reach the ship she follows him up into the control room. He taps the stellar batteries recharge gauge. The needle still hovers under the ten percent mark.

"Drat," he groans. "At this rate it'll be at least a month before she's ready to blast off."

"Are you in such a hurry to leave us?" Jaquee asks.

"Heck, yes!" Spin says. Then he blushes yet again. "I mean, you been awful swell and all, but I got exams soon. And Mom and Dad will get real worried." He shrugs. "At least this gives us time to repair the damage."

"Must it be repaired for the ship to leave?"

"Sure. It wouldn't be safe to fly her with a hole in her."

Jaquee nods. "Then we will help you fix it."

"You will? Say, that's grand of you!"

She stares at him intently. He can almost feel her in his mind.

"Your knowledge of the ship is very impressive," she says. "You are a very intelligent boy. Much smarter than the others."

"Aw, Bud is pretty smart," he says. "He just doesn't like to let on."

"Are all teenagers in Flat Hills like them?"

"Gosh no," Spin says. "But they're all a little screwy, I guess. I sure hope I don't get like that when I'm a teenager."

"Don't worry," she smiles. "Let's go speak to Krut."

Krut has just finished off the morning meal when they enter the hut. He smiles with greasy lips. Spin looks around.

"Are my friends here?"

"Gone," Krut says. He licks the grease from his lips.

"Gone?" Spin cries. "Where the heck they go?"

Krut and Jaquee smile. "Sit, Spin. Eat."

"I'm not hungry!" he shouts. He knows he's having what Mom calls "a snit," but he can't help himself. Darn those juvenile delinquents anyway! Probably off looking for a store to rob. He doesn't mind so much that Dash is gone, but he thought Bud was smarter.

Okay for you, he thinks. I'll fix the ship myself. And if you're not here when she blasts off, tough luck.

Krut smiles encouragingly. Spin's stomach growls.


5



Over the next two weeks Spin occupies his days with the repairing of the Starbird. He gives up wondering when the others will return. Maybe they ran into whoever shot at the ship and are in trouble. Krut and Jaquee seem to have no idea. They just say "Don't worry" whenever he asks.

His life on Floebee becomes as dull and routine as the middle of a school year. He wakes up and eats. He walks with Jaquee and the others to the ship. They walk back and he eats. Then he is very tired and falls asleep on the same woven mat where he ate. He begins to wonder if the Floebeans are putting the idea of sleep in his mind as soon as he's eaten his fill, but he thinks it might be impolite to ask. Maybe they just think he's a growing boy and needs his rest.

The Floebeans prove to be excellent workers. By reading his mind they know as much about the ship as he does. He just wishes they would quit making him hungry and then shoveling food in him.

"I feel stuffed as a Thanksgiving turkey," he moans after one meal.

"Fine," Krut smiles. "Very fine."

His next meal tastes like Thanksgiving turkey, with stuffing and cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. It makes him very homesick, but the batteries are more than halfway recharged by this point and the repairs proceed well. In fact, the Floebeans have patched the hole and repaired the batteries but keep finding other things to tinker with. Spin thinks they're awful nice.

He wishes they'd tell him more about Floebee, though. The Professor will have a zillion questions, and Spin doesn't know much more than what he's seen with his own eyes. When he asks, they just smile or give him vague non-answers. He can't tell if they don't know about anything outside their little village, don't care, or don't want to tell him. He wishes he could read their minds.

One evening after stuffing himself as usual he fights the urge to fall right asleep. He struggles groggily to his feet and makes his way out of the hut. For once neither of the moons has risen and he can see the night sky crowded with stars.

"Do you like our stars, Spin Martindale?" Jaquee asks, stepping out behind him.

"Sure," he says, fighting a yawn. "Of course, they're all different."

"Of course," she says.

"Do you see constellations in them?" he asks. "You know, like pictures?"

"A long time ago we did," she says. "But we have forgotten them all, also a long time ago now."

"Gee whiz, how'd that happen?"

"We have been here a very long time, Spin Martindale. We have forgotten many things."

It's the first time she's ever talked to him about Floebean history, and the first he's ever heard her sound a little sad.

"Have you ever dreamed of one day going up there?" he asks her. "To the stars?"

"We did, but we have forgotten about that too. Come inside. You are very tired."

He yawns.


6



Truk the blog has become his faithful friend. Though it looks like an overgrown toad with a mouthful of daggers, it is gentle, playful and affectionate, like a dog. Not like Killer. A nice dog. It sleeps next to him, wakes up and eats with him, follows him through the jungle to the ship and back. Jaquee doesn't seem to mind, and Spin enjoys the company.


One morning in the third week he wakes up to what his mind tells him is a big platter of scrambled eggs, bacon and sausage. Truk isn't there filching from it as usual.


"Where's Truk?" he asks.

"This is Truk," Krut smiles, indicating the food.

Horrified, Spin spits it out.

"You killed him!"

"Truk was blog. Blogs are food," Krut said.

"That's disgusting!"

Tears stinging his eyes, Spin gets heavily to his feet and lumbers out to stand in the clearing under Zeta 2 Reticuli burning angrily in the green sky.

"Don't worry," Jaquee says, coming up behind him.

"Truk was your pet! He was my friend!"

"Yes, Truk was fond of you. You fed him every day. Now he is happy to feed you."

"You people are crazy!" Spin snuffles.

"Floebee is a poor planet, Spin Martindale," she says. "It is not like Flat Hills. Here we feed each other."

"I hate Floebee!" Spin cries. "I wish I never came here!"

He storms across the clearing.

"Where are you going?" she calls.

"To the ship. Don't follow me."

"The repairs are done. We finished them last night while you slept."

"Good! I don't want to stay here one second longer than I have to."

Spin is out of breath by the time he reaches the edge of the jungle path. He turns around.

"And I'm fat!" he shouts.

Truk, standing in the hut's doorway, smiles and nods.

"Very fine," he says.

Spin crashes heavily through the jungle to the Starbird. He can barely haul his weight up the ladder to the control room. The repairs are indeed finished. The Floebeans have added touches of their own. Red woven sleeping mats on the floors, woven baskets filled with some kind of faintly foul-smelling dried meats down in the hold. Spin doesn't know what kind of meat, and he doesn't want to know. Just seeing it turns his stomach, with no Floebean there to make him think it smells delicious.

Spin is startled to see the stellar batteries gauge is at 94 percent. The tinkering of the Floebeans must have sped up the recharge. She'll be ready to blast off tomorrow.

"Good," he mutters. He sinks heavily into one of the padded seats at the console. He's beginning to feel a little embarrassed about throwing such a snit over the blog. He is a stranger here, after all. He shouldn't expect the Floebeans to think and act like he does. They've been awful nice. They even provisioned the Starbird, after their own fashion, for his return trip to Earth. He should go back and apologize. And ask the Floebeans one more time to help find Bud and Dash. Even though he's become pretty convinced that they're staying away on purpose. They seemed to like it on this planet. What do they have to go back to Earth for? Just Sheriff Burns waiting for them with handcuffs.

Whatever happens, he thinks, he'll be happy to get back to Flat Hills, where people don't eat their pets!

The radio suddenly crackles.

"Earth to Starbird. Earth to Starbird. Spin? Are you there, my boy?"

Spin's heart leaps. He leans forward over his fat belly and stabs the radio switch with a pudgy finger.

"Professor Winthrop!" he shouts.

"My stars, boy, am I glad to hear your voice!" the Professor says. "We'd just about given you boys up for dead!"

"We're trillions of miles away, Professor. How can the radio work?"

"Oh, we got so worried when we didn't hear from you that I sat down and figured out a way to use a stellar battery to boost radio waves," the Professor replies. "Then it was just a matter of aiming the beam trough the fifth dimension to you."

Spin smiles. Professor Winthrop always makes the most amazing inventions sound simple.

"What's it like there, my boy? Is there life?"

"Is there!" Spin laughs.

"But what has been happening? Why didn't the Starbird return to Earth? Were my settings off?"

The words rush out of Spin as he tells the Professor everything that has happened in the last three weeks.

"And now the batteries are almost charged up," he says. "I figure she'll be blasting off tomorrow. We'll be landing in your back yard three days later. And boy will I be glad to be home. Professor, can you please tell my mom and dad? Gee, I guess they've been awful sad."

There is only crackling silence from the radio.

"Professor? You there?"

More silence.

"Professor?"

"Spin, listen to me very carefully," Professor Winthrop finally says. His voice is more grave than Spin's ever heard it. "I want you to stay aboard the Starbird. Do you understand? Don't go back to that village. Don't set foot outside the ship. In fact, go lock the door."


"But I should go back and thank them for all their help," Spin says, confused by the Professor's grim tone. "And I should ask them to look one more time for Bud and Dash, too."

"Forget about the other boys, Spin," Professor Winthrop replies. "I don't think you can help them now."

"What do you mean, Professor?"

"My boy, from everything you just told me, I think you are in grave danger. My hypothesis could be wrong — I hope to the heavens that it is!"

Spin doubts that. The Professor's hypotheses are never wrong.

"But if I'm correct, the people on that planet are not like you and me."

"What do you mean, Professor?"

"If I am correct, they are... cannibals!"


7



"We have learned of your great intellect from Spin Martindale, Professor," Jaquee says from behind Spin.

Spin leaps up from his chair and whirls around.

"And you demonstrate it yet again."

She is smiling at Spin, same as she always has. But now there is something about her eyes that reminds him of Krut. A slyness. His blood turns cold in his veins.

"Who is that?" the Professor asks. "Spin, did you lock the door like I told you?"

"As Spin has perhaps described to you, this is not a rich planet, Professor," Jaquee continues. "The pictures of Earth that we have gleaned from our visitors' minds have made us ache with envy. There is much plant life on Floebee. Too much. But little that we can eat. We are almost entirely carnivorous."

Spin eyes the open doorway behind her, and the red jungle beyond. When he wasn't so fat he could have made it out the door. But where would he run? He needs to be in the Starbird.

"But even in that sense this is a poor planet," she goes on. "We were once many. Now we are a wretched handful." She turns her eyes to Spin. "Spin, do you remember asking us about other people on Floebee? Did they live in cities? Did they shoot at this ship? We never gave you a real answer. The answer is there are no other Floebeans but us!"

"B-but there aren't more than a hundred of you, tops," Spin stammers. "On the whole planet?"

"Oh, once there were many more of us," she replies. "Not billions, like your people on Earth. Millions. But as I said, food was always scarce. And the more of us there were, the more scarce it got. We hunted and trapped the animals, until there are now almost none left, and over the generations they've become very canny about avoiding us. There was only one species we could domesticate for food, like your chickens and pigs on Earth."

"Blogs," Spin mutters.

She nods. "But as you've seen, even they are scarce. As our numbers grew, so did our hunger."

"So you turned on each other," the Professor says on the radio.

She nods again. "We became what you call cannibals. We hunted, butchered and devoured each other, until only my small village is left. And we are hungry, all the time. You can't imagine our hunger."

A feeling of horror grips Spin so tightly he can scarcely breathe the words, "Oh my gosh, Dash! And Bud!"

"Yes," Jaquee says. "You ate them three weeks ago. I believe your mind told you they tasted like... chicken pot pie? And Killer was breakfast. It was our plan from the first moment we saw this ship glittering in the sky, bringing you to us. How our mouths watered! That's why we shot at her. Not to destroy her, but only to wound her so that you would not take off again immediately and deprive us of a meal."

"And that's..." Spin's voice is choked off. He feels all the extra pounds of fat he's gained in three weeks. Every ounce of it. His mind swims with horror.

"Why we've been fattening you up," Jaquee says, nodding. "Yes. We found, the first day you were here, that our plants were not poisonous to you and your companions and Killer. Can you imagine our joy? We began fattening you immediately, just as an Earth farmer fattens a Christmas goose. But Bud and Dash were so disagreeable to us. The thoughts that ran through their minds were so ugly, so brutish. Even Bud, whom you admired. They were such... teenagers from Earth. We couldn't wait for them to get fat. We ate them right away, as much to be rid of them as out of hunger."

She takes a step toward Spin. He can feel her mind reaching for his, trying to project the image of kindness and generosity that she and the others have been putting in his brain for three weeks, but now his horror and disgust block her out.

"But you are different, Spin Martindale. You are a fine boy. You are... You will be... sweet."

Spin hears someone scream. Then he realizes it's him. He lumbers to a corner of the control room and wedges his bulk under the console.

"Listen to me, young lady!" the Professor cries. "Earth is rich and bountiful. Now that Starbird has shown the journey can be made, we can help you. We can bring you animals to domesticate. We can give you seeds for crops that won't be poisonous to you. Spin has done you no harm. Let him come home in the Starbird. We'll fill it with the first of many shipments of food and send it right back to you."

She looks around, smiling and nodding.

"She is an amazing ship, Professor. We have learned much about her from Spin's mind, and from working on her. Once we were an ingenious people too. Our own scientists made many impressive inventions. Like the cannon we fired at this ship. An ancient device. We were frankly surprised that it worked. We stopped making such devices a very long time ago, you see. Our hunger distracted us and became all-consuming. Yes, we admire your genius, Professor. We know what a great achievement the Starbird is."

"Then you understand how we can use her to save your people!" the Professor cries.

"Thank you, Professor," she smiles. "But you've already been a great help. We don't need you to bring Earth's animals to us. We are coming to you."

Spin's mind reels. The sleeping mats on the floors, the baskets of awful dried meats down below! The Floebeans haven't provisioned her for his trip to Earth, but for their own!

Jaquee smiles and nods. "What would Bud say? Right again, Brainy."

"Professor!" Spin screams. "Warn Earth! Tell the Army and Air Force! Tell them to watch the skies! Tell them the cannibals are coming from the fifth dimension!"

"Spin!" the Professor cries. "What have I done? Oh, what have I – "

Jaquee switches off the radio. Humming an alien tune lightly to herself, she checks the stellar batteries gauge. She nods and rubs her belly.

She turns and smiles down at Spin cowering under the console. He feels her mind touching his.

"Come now, Spin Martindale," she says. "Are we really monsters? Are we really so different from you?"

Spin suddenly feels a calm resignation settle on his mind. He doesn't know if Jaquee is doing it, or if he is just accepting his fate, like a lamb led to slaughter.

"We once traveled the stars in ships like this," Jaquee is telling him, her voice soothing, lulling. "Do you know what we found? People are the same all over the universe."

"Sure," Spin mutters glumly. "...Real stinkers!"

Jaquee laughs and holds out a shiny black hand. He watches his own pudgy pale hand reach for it.

"Come, sweet boy," she says. "It's time for supper."


 


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All material on this website is copyrighted and may not be republished in any form without written permission. Copyright © 2009 John Strausbaugh

 

 


All material on this website is copyrighted and may not be republished in any form without written permission. Copyright © 2009 John Strausbaugh