Thousand Words for January 15, 2018

The large auditorium was filling up with people–there were the the people you would expect at such an event, such the scientists and researchers who studied the Klepi professionally. There were the students enrolled in various courses for whom the lecture would be a formal assignment. But mostly, there were the curious: ordinary people who were interested in such things and wanted to get a look at one of them close up. They filled the large room, standing and chatting and milling about for the best seat.
Backstage, handlers were completing last-minute details. Air handlers had been brought in to help provide the airflow needed to permit the Klepi to remain stationary on the stage. In its native environment, the creature would achieve the constant flow of air it needed through its body by constant movement. In its natural setting, the Klepi were never still, never stationary, but always trotting on their three legs, surprisingly gracefully, inhaling in the front and exhaling to the rear. The flow turned a natural turbine inside the creature, which provided motive power for circulation of blood and peristaltic action in its digestive tract. Only through the mechanism of an artificial source of airflow could the Klepi stop and stand on a stage. The maintenance of essential function–blood flow and the renewal of the fluid that pressurized the Klepi musculature–could be achieved with a relatively low airflow rate, but as the rate slowed, so would the speed of the massive internal turbine and the reduction of a natural safety margin if the flow should be interrupted.
Being on the air unit was physiologically stressful for Klepi, and would result in irreversible damage after a few hours. A flow of about 40 cubic meters of air per second was normal and preferred, but that was of Klepi air, denser than the air on Earth by a factor of 1.2–about 10 percent of that represented the bare minimum amount the Klepi needed to keep his turbine clicking over. The air unit on hand–there were two of them provided at each location, one being held in reserve for redundancy–could easily provide three or four times that bare amount, but was generally set to push 40 cubic meters per second through a 75-inch pipe, which narrowed at its end to 61 inches, the diameter of the Klepi intake. The pipe was clamped down on the hard keratin-over-bone ring that formed the mouth of the intake. With this in place and the air moving through it, the Klepi could stop the rhythmic galloping motion of its legs and, while it was not anatomically equipped to sit, it could at least stand still, vestigial limbs on the sides of its hoofs stretching to touch the ground for balance.
So equipped and prepared, the Klepi was wheeled out onto the stage. Electronic noise suppressors tuned to the wavelengths and frequencies of the air unit were used to reduce the roar to a gentle whir, and the audience applauded while the translation devices received a final adjustment. Finally, a white-collar technician strode out and halted at center stage. “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your attendance this evening and for your interest in our honored guest.” There was more applause and the technician waited for it to subside. “Through the generous cooperation of the Nelson Foundation and the University of Pennsylvania, it is my pleasure to present to you a discussion with Klepi 1121.”

The technician stepped away and sat at a table next to where the Klepi was standing while the lights came up on stage, providing the audience with their first good look at the creature. Of course, everyone knew what they looked like; photographs of all sorts were commonly accessible, and there were websites that presented and described their anatomy and physiology in great detail. A fair amount of information had been released on how their ships worked too. Since it was necessary for them to be in motion, their ships were ring-shaped, spinning to produce gravity, and pressurized with the dense nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere of the home world. The crew galloped round and round the ring; it was large, nearly 3000 meters in diameter, which produced an inner circumference of nearly ten kilometers in length. At the normal resting speed of around 40 meters per second, this meant the creatures made a complete circuit of their ring-shaped ship in a little over four minutes. The trip from Klepi, 188 light years away, had taken 203 years–and all that time, the four Klepi who made the first transit ran around their ring. They all did. The Klepi used a fuelless propulsion method that took advantage of the graviton-antineutrino tensor field that gravity carried across the deep gulf of space; the energy cost was paid through mass destruction of stellar matter at the ends of the field and transmitted instantaneously to the accelerating ship through quark pairing. It was an ingenious way that many Earth-based laboratories had been on the brink of discovering when the Klepi ship arrived.

The media covered every aspect of the Klepi arrival, and these basic facts were well known to the audience. But for most, this would be the first time any of them had actually seen one in the flesh.
Klepi 1121 stood swaying on his twitching legs; a microphone on a stand positioned at its mouthparts between its front legs captured the chewing-cud sounds of its language; it fed these to a translating computer, a Klepi-human blend of equipment and technology. The technician who had delivered the introduction was there to put in the final touches, cleaning up the grammar and usage as needed.
The Klepi looked around–a movement of some light-sensitive stalks at the top of its turbine that would not have been noticed by any except the most knowledgeable observers–and moved slightly to bring the mouthparts closer to the microphone. The chewing-cud started, and then the computer’s voice was on the auditoriums sound system. “I thank you for your attention and add my own greeting to that of the Klepi people whom I represent.” There was more scattered applause, and although the chewing-cud sound didn’t stop, the computer voice did. As the applause died away, the computer voice began again. “Our name for our world is Klep,” the voice droned. “We are carbon-based, oxygen-burning creatures not unlike humans in our biochemistry, which reflects, almost certainly, a similar early evolution. We have creatures in our fossil record not unlike some Earth animals. You can see that my physiology shares some features with your modern horses, although i do not descend from a prey species,” it said.

Second Thousand Words for January 14, 1018

The whole thing started with a running shower in the next room.

     Kent and Mabel Kirkwood of 3431 Drosophila Road–only in a college town would you have a Drosophila Road–Middletown, Connecticut, had looked forward to a short getaway for their fourteenth wedding anniversary, but had to delay their plans when the architectural firm that Kent worked for as a materials engineer was rather unexpectedly awarded a contract to build an extension onto an existing structure downtown as part of a long-awaited refurbishment of the old garden district. A source of funding had appeared unexpectedly, and the building owner, a man named Wesley Cogsley, was anxious to spend the money lest it be retracted. He had good reason to be concerned: the money had been promised by an old and wealthy Navy friend casually over drinks, without much reflection, and Cogsley half expected the friend to pull his offer after his beancounters got wind of it. The check–$1.8 million–had cleared and so the money was spent, and the project awarded to Kent’s employer, Hapley and Associates. Thus the week-long trip to Vegas was cancelled and replaced with a weekend at Disney World instead, booked on a Monday for Thursday travel. The resort hotels were, of course, full, and while the Kirkwoods were placed on the reserve list in case of a cancellation, no such thing materialized, and so Kent and Mabel found themselves in the Howard Johnson’s four miles from the park: a two-star hotel, if you were generous. “Oh, I don’t care,” Mabel had said when they checked in and got to the room. “As long as the shower is clean, it’ll be fine. We’ll be at the park all day anyway.” Characteristic of her; she’d been raised in near poverty in Appalachia, used a Marine Corps commission as a ticket out, and after six years in the Corps, she’d endured a lot worse than a crummy hotel room.

     Kent was far more squeamish about such things. “Let me check the bed before you sit on it, honey,” he said as they maneuvered their luggage through the door.

     “Check it for what?” Mabel asked, not entirely sure she wanted to know.

     “Bedbugs,” he said.

     “Eww. Is there really such a thing?”

     “Sure there are,” he said, tearing the covers off the bed. “Haven’t you ever said ‘don’t let the bedbugs bite’ to someone?” He was inspecting the seams of the bare mattress now, but there was nothing to see. “They’re endemic in the US right now.”

     After the bed passed inspection, Mabel went in the bathroom to assess the tub. It was clean–chipped in a few places, but clean–and Mabel noted the sound of water running. She checked the taps, then observed the surface of the water in the toilet, and found no indication of water movement. Kent’s face appeared in the doorway. “How’s it look in there?”

     “Listen,” Mabel said. “What’s that noise?”

     It’s the next room. Sounds like they’re taking a shower.”

     “Oh.” Mabel nodded. “Yeah, I think you’re right.”

     After unpacking and arranging their things, Kent and Mabel went down to the lobby then had a late lunch at the Dennys Restaurant across the street. They returned to the room an hour later, and when Mabel went into the bathroom, the first thing she noticed was that the noise was still there. “Honey, the water is still on in the next room,” she said.

    “You’re kidding me,” Kent said. He stepped in and over to the wall that separated the two bathrooms. “They must like long showers over there,” he said.

     “I guess it could be a second person taking a shower,” Mabel shrugged. She came out of the bathroom and moved across the room to open the sliding glass door that led to a small balcony. There was just enough room for the two chairs and small table between them that sat there.  She came back in and closed the door. “It’s too cold to be out there,” she said as Kent was arranging clothes in the dresser drawers.

     “Why don’t you see if you can get some weather?”

     She picked up the television remote and flopped down on the bed. The television came on and she flipped through the channels, locating the ubiquitous weather station. She muted the audio and studied the graphic on the acreen. “It’s supposed to get up to 73 today.”

     “That’s not too bad.”

     Kent finished arranging things and lay down on the bed next to his wife. She picked up the remote and clicked through the channels. “Ah!” she said “Fast Times at Ridgemont High! I love this movie!”

     “Meh,” her husband respondes. But he thrust a pillow behind his head, and the two of them watched the movie for awhile; Kent dozed off and woke only because his wife got up and headed to the bathroom. The movie’s credits were rolling as Kent pulled himself up to a sitting position.

     “Hey, the water is still running over there,” she said from the bathroom

     “What?” Kent said.

     Mabel’s face appeared in the doorway. “I said the water is still running over there. That’s not right.” She stepped over to the bed, sat down next to Kent, and picked up the room phone.

     “What are you doing?”

     “Calling the desk,” she responded. Then the clerk downstairs answered.

     “Hampton Inn, Roger speaking.”

     “This is Mabel Kirkwood in 448,” she said crisply. “Listen, the water in the next room, in the bathroom, has been running a long time. We can hear it through the wall.” She paused, listening to the clerk’s response. “It’s on the right as you walk in,” she said.

     “What’s on the right?” Kent asked.

     “Shh!” Mabel shushed him. “Okay,” she said into the phone. Then she put it back in the cradle.

     “What did they say?” Kent asked as he contemplated rising from his seat on the bed there beside her.

     “They said they’d check it out.”

     And presently, the heard footsteps, then a knock on the adjoining room. “Mr. Pordlin?” A voice called, then a louder knock and “Mr. Portlin, hotel staff.” Then there was the soft beep as the lock was opened with a master keycard. “Mr. Portlin?” the staff person announced loudly as one does when entering an ostensibly occupied hotel room. Kent and Mabel listened–they heard the man knock on the bathroom door, call the name again, and then the water was turned off. “Shit!” they heard him say, and then they heard the crackle of a handheld radio. “Sheila, we’ve got a code 41 up here in 452,” he said.

     “Code 41,”a female voice responded.

     Kent went to the door, opened it, and stepped out into the hallway. He could see the open door of the next room, 452, and as he waited for something to happen, Mabel joined him there and took a step toward the open door. “Honey, do you think–” Kent started to say, but by then Mabel had crossed over to the open door and was taking in the scene. Even in profile, Kent recognized the squad leader grimace and posture.

Thousand Words for January 14, 2018

Sasha Vildmer sat in a plain little room at police headquarters and cursed his luck, cursed his friends, cursed the white-painted wooden table at which he sat. But most of all, he cursed the three men who had gotten him into his present untenable situation.

     The detective who had put him in this little room came back; unaccountably, he knocked before he cracked open the door. It must have been the beginning of a ‘good cop, bad cop’ routine they were setting up for him. “Mr. Vildmer?” the detective said through an inch crack.

     “Yeah,” Vildmer answered back.

     The detective opened the door the rest of the way and stepped in. Behind him was what Vildmer presumed would be the bad cop. He was straight out of central casting: big, broad shouldered, heavy black mustache, and–a bit over the top–mirror sunglasses. All he was lacking was a toothpick in his mouth. He said nothing but moved to lean against the wall next to the large dark window from which Vildmer was certain the entire ordeal was being audio and video recorded. Detective Thompson sat in the other chair at the white table, with a corner separating them–the collegial corner, as it was called at the Police Academy. Vildmer didn’t know it by that name, but he recognized that what was happening was that he was being seduced.

     Thompson laid the file folder on the table and squared it up. “Sasha, we’ve got a little problem,” he said, loosening his tie and rubbing his hand over his face. It was standard practice: to portray the good cop as vulnerable and needy. The bad cop was playing his role too, glaring at them from the other side of the room while behind the glass, the camera whirred.

     “We?” Vildmer said.

     “I’m hoping you can help me, Sasha,” he said. “You’re the only one who can.”

     Nice, Vildmer thought. He’s using my first name in every exchange, he’s using a passive construction, he’s using singular pronouns as much as possible–textbook ‘good cop.’ Vildmer snorted. “What do you want?” he asked.

     “I need your help on this abduction,” Thompson said over the glare from Mirror Sunglasses.

     There was a pause while Vildmer considered this. He didn’t need the time–he would give the detective what he asked for, not because of the little performance, and certainly not out of some altruistic feeling for the girl–she was already dead and she wouldn’t get any deader–but because it was in his self-interest to do so. He knew it, the jerks who had gotten him into this thing in the first place knew it, and the prosecuter would know it too. But Vildmer enjoyed the little dance, the drama of it. “I don’t know anything about that girl,” he said.

     Thompson looked at Mirror, who, for the first time, looked away. “We’re not asking you to testify, Sasha,” Thompson said, the apology dripping in his voice. Mirror didn’t break, wouldn’t break in a million years, probably–but Vildmer had a hard time keeping the curl away from the corners of his mouth. He kept his eyes on Thompson. We just need a little hint, a word about where to look.”

     “Don’tcha have any leads?”

     Again, Thompson did the hand-over-face move; Mirror was staring levelly at him again. “Not so much,” the detective said. He reached down and opened the folder. On top of the substantial pile of papers there was an eight-by-ten glossy of the girl, probably a school photo. She was sixteen, pretty, blue eyes and long dark hair parted in the middle and combed to the sides. Her skin was clear; no makeup and no need for any. Thompson had studied a number of photos which had been provided by the family; it had been felt by the experts upstairs, the psychologists, that this shot would, of the ones available, generate the most sympathy. There were others–there were ones of a little girl in a ballet costume, there were ones of her in a checked shirt riding in the back of a pickup truck, there were ones of her wrapping a box with Christmas paper. Thompson peeled the photo off the piled and positioned it carefully so that it would be constantly visible as he continued. “Deborah Louise Harrell, born December 17, 2002 in Louisville, Kentucky. Father Henry Gavin Harrell, mother is Helen Louise née Stephenson. The father is an attorney specializing in corporate mergers, mother was a local television personality in Louisville, moved to part time work after the child’s birth.”

     “Yeah, Helen Stephenson, Channel 2 News,” Vildmer said. “You can’t live in Louisville and not know Helen Stephenson.”

     As a matter of fact, Thompson had never heard of her, and he’d lives in Louisville for nearly two decades–but he wasn’t much of a TV person. When the former jewel of Channel 2’s news operation’s daughter went missing, it was a huge local news story despite the fact that Helen Stephenson had not been a regularly scheduled part of the broadcast in nearly two decades. She had appeared from time to time–Christmas specials and the like. Her daughter was so well behaved, well spoken, and reasonably photogenic that the executive producer had actually allowed the girl, a charming six-year-old at the time, to appear with her mother in a six-minute spot on child nutrition one year.