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The floor of Borderlands Books had been polished to mirror brightness. A nice trick with old knotty pine, but Penauch would have been a weapons-grade obsessive-compulsive if he’d been human. I’d thought about setting him to detailing my car, but he’s just as likely to polish it down to aluminum and steel after deciding the paint was an impurity.
When he discovered that the human race recorded our ideas in books, he’d been impossible to keep away from the store. Penauch didn’t actually read them, not as such, and he was most reluctant to touch the volumes. He seemed to view books as vehicles, launch capsules to propel ideas from the dreaming mind of the human race into our collective forebrain.
Despite the fact that Penauch was singular, unitary, a solitary alien in the human world, he apparently didn’t conceive of us as anything but a collective entity. The xenoanthropologists at Berkeley were carving Ph.D.s out of that particular clay as fast as their grad students could transcribe Penauch’s conversations with me.
He’d arrived the same as David Bowie in that old movie. No, not Brother from Another Planet; The Man Who Fell to Earth. Tumbled out of the autumn sky over the Cole Valley neighborhood of San Francisco like a maple seed, spinning with his arms stretched wide and his mouth open in a teakettle shriek audible from the Ghost Fleet in Suisun Bay all the way down to the grubby streets of San Jose.
* * *
The subject’s fallsacs when fully deployed serve as a tympanum, producing a rhythmic vibration at a frequency perceived by the human ear as a high-pitched shriek. Xenophysiological modeling has thus far failed to generate testable hypotheses concerning the volume of the sound produced. Some observers have speculated that the subject deployed technological assistance during atmospheric entry, though no evidence of this was found at the landing site, and subject has never indicated this was the case.
— Scholes, Jen West. A Reader’s Guide to Earth’s Only Living Spaceman. Feldman, Jude A. San Francisco: Borderlands Books, 2014.
* * *
It was easier keeping Penauch in the bookstore. The owners didn’t mind. They’d had hairless cats around the place for years—a breed called sphinxes. The odd animals served as a neighborhood tourist attraction and business draw. A seven-foot alien with a face like a plate of spaghetti and a cluster of writhing arms wasn’t all that different. Not in a science fiction bookstore, at least.
Thing is, when Penauch was out in the world, he had a tendency to fix things.
This fixing often turned out to be not so good. No technology was involved. Penauch’s body was demonstrably able to modify the chitinous excrescences of his appendages at will. If he needed a cutting edge, he ate a bit of whatever steel was handy and swiftly metabolized it. If he needed electrical conductors, he sought out copper plumbing. If he needed logic probes, he consumed sand or diamonds or glass.
It was all the same to Penauch.
As best any of us could figure out, Penauch was a sort of tool. A Swiss army knife that some spacefaring race had dropped or thrown away, abandoned until he came to rest on Earth’s alien shore.
And Penauch only spoke to me.
* * *
The question of Penauch’s mental competence has bearing in both law and ethics. Pratt and Shaw (2013) have effectively argued that the alien fails the Turing test, both at a gross observational level and within the context of finer measurements of conversational intent and cooperation. Cashier (2014) claims an indirectly derived Stanford-Binet score in the 99th percentile, but seemingly contradicts herself by asserting that Penauch’s sentience is at best an open question. Is he (or it) a machine, a person, or something else entirely?
— Browne, S. G. “A Literature Review of the Question of Alien Mentation.” Journal of Exogenic Studies II.4 (August 2015).
* * *
The first time he fixed something was right after he’d landed. Penauch impacted with that piercing shriek at 2:53 p.m. Pacific Time on Saturday, July 16, 2011, at the intersection of Cole and Parnassus. Every window within six blocks shattered. Almost a hundred pedestrians and shoppers in the immediate area were treated for lacerations from broken glass, over two dozen more for damage to hearing and sinuses.
I got to him first, stumbling out of Cole Hardware with a headache like a cartoon anvil had been dropped on me. Inside, we figured a bomb had gone off. The rising noise and the vibrating windows. All the vases in the homeware section had exploded. Luckily I’d been with the fasteners. The nails sang, but they didn’t leap off the shelves and try to make hamburger of me.
Outside, there was this guy lying in a crater in the middle of the intersection, like Wile E. Coyote after he’d run out of Acme patented jet fuel. I hurried over, touched his shoulder, and realized what a goddamned mess he was. Then half a dozen eyes opened, and something like a giant rigatoni farted before saying, “Penauch.”
Weird thing was, I could hear the spelling.
Though I didn’t know it in that moment, my old life was over, my new one begun.
Penauch then looked at my shattered wristwatch, grabbed a handful of BMW windshield glass, sucked it down, and moments later fixed my timepiece.
For some value of “fixed.”
It still tells time, somewhere with a base seventeen counting system and twenty-eight point one five seven hours a day. It shows me the phases of Phobos and Deimos, evidence that he’d been on (or near) Mars. Took a while to figure that one out. And the thing warbles whenever someone gets near me carrying more than about eight ounces of petroleum products. Including grocery bags, for example, and most plastics.
I could probably get millions for it on eBay. Penauch’s first artifact, and one of less than a dozen in private hands.
The government owns him now, inasmuch as anyone owns Penauch. They can’t keep him anywhere. He “fixes” his way out of any place he gets locked into. He comes back to San Francisco, finds me, and we go to the bookstore. Where Penauch polishes the floors and chases the hairless cats and draws pilgrims from all over the world to pray in Valencia Street. The city gave up on traffic control a long time ago. It’s a pedestrian mall now when he’s around.
The problem has always been, none of us have any idea what Penauch is. What he does. What he’s for. I’m the only one he talks to, and most of what he says is Alice in Wonderland dialogue, except when it isn’t. Two new semiconductor companies have been started through analysis of his babble, and an entire novel chemical feedstock process for converting biomass into plastics.
Then one day, down on the mirrored floor of Borderlands Books, Penauch looked at me and said quite clearly, “They’re coming back.”
I was afraid we were about to get our answers.
* * *
It was raining men in the Castro, literally, and every single one of them was named Todd. Every single one of them wore Hawaiian shirts and khaki shorts and Birkenstocks. Every single one of them landed on their backs, flopped like trout for a full minute, and leaped to their feet shouting one word: “Penauch!”
— Carriger, Gail. San Francisco Chronicle. November 11, 2015.
* * *
“I must leave,” Penauch said, his voice heavy as he stroked a hairless cat on the freshly polished floor of the bookstore.
On a small TV in the back office of the store, an excited reporter in Milk Plaza spoke rapidly about the strange visitors who’d fallen from the sky. Hundreds of men named Todd, now scattered out into the city with one word on their tongues. As it played in the background, I watched Penauch and could feel the sadness coming off of him in waves. “Where will you go?”
Penauch stood. “I don’t know. Anywhere but here. Will you help me?”
The bell on the door jingled and a man entered the store. “Penauch,” he said.
I looked up at the visitor. His Hawaiian shirt was an orange that hurt my eyes, decorated in something that looked like cascading pineapples. He smiled and scowled at the same time.
Penauch moved quickly, and suddenly the room smelled of ozone and cabbage.
The man, named Todd I assumed, was gone.
I looked at my alien, took in the slow wriggle of his pale and determined face. “What did you do?”
Penauch’s clustered silver eyes leaked mercury tears. “I . . . un-fixed him.”
We ran out the back. We climbed into my car over on Guerrero. We drove north and away.
* * *
Xenolinguists have expended considerable effort on the so-called “Todd Phenomenon.” Everyone on 11/11/15 knew the visitors from outer space were named Todd, yet no one could say how or why. This is the best documented case of what can be argued as telepathy in the modern scientific record, yet it is equally worthless by virtue of being impossible to either replicate or falsify.
— Christopher Barzak, blog entry, January 14th, 2016
* * *
Turning east and then north, we stayed ahead of them for most of a week. We made it as far as Edmonton before the man-rain caught up to us.
While Penauch slept, I grabbed snacks of news from the radio. These so-called Todds spread out in their search, my friend’s name the only word upon their lips. They made no effort to resist the authorities. Three were shot by members of the Washington State Patrol. Two were killed by Navy SEALS in the small town of St. Maries, Idaho. They stole cars. They drove fast. They followed after us.
And then they found us in Edmonton.
We were at an A&W drive-through window when the first Todd caught up to the car. He T-boned us into the side of the restaurant with his Mercedes, pushing Penuach against me. The Todd was careful not to get within reach.
“Penauch,” he shouted from outside the window. My friend whimpered. Our car groaned and ground as his hands moved over the dashboard, trying to fix it.
Two other cars hemmed us in, behind and before. Todds in Hawaiian shirts and khaki shorts stepped out, unfazed by the cold. One climbed onto the hood of my Corvair. “Your services are still required.”
Penauch whimpered again. I noticed that the Todd’s breath did not show in the sub-zero air.
The air shimmered as a bending light enfolded us.
* * *
Af-afterwards, it, uh, it didn’t m-matter so much. I m-mean, uh, you know? He smiled at me. Well, n-not an, uh, a smile. Not with that face. Like, a virtual smile? Th-then he was g-gone. Blown out like a candle. You know? Flame on, flame off.
— RCMP transcript of eyewitness testimony. Edmonton, AB. November 16, 2015.
* * *
I awoke in a dark place choking for air, my chest weighted with fluid. Penauch’s hand settled upon my shoulder. The heaviness leapt from me.
“Where am I?”
I heard a sound not unlike something heavy rolling in mud. It was a thick, wet noise and words formed alongside it in my mind. You are in—crackle hiss warble—medical containment pod of the Starship— but the name of the vessel was incomprehensible to me. Exposure to our malfunctioning—hiss crackle warble—mechanic has infected you with trace elements of—here another word I could not understand—viruses.
“I don’t get it,” I said.
Penauch’s voice was low. “You’re not meant to. But once I’ve fixed you, you will be returned to the store.”
I looked at him. “What about you?”
He shook his head, the rigatoni of his face slapping itself gently. “My services are required here. I am now operating within my design parameters.”
I opened my mouth to ask another question, but then the light returned and I was falling. Beside me, Penauch fell too, and he held my hand tightly. “Do not let go,” he said as we impacted.
This time we made no crater as we landed. We stood and I brushed myself off. “I have no idea what any of this means.”
“It won’t matter,” Penauch told me. “But say goodbye to the cats for me.”
“I will,” I promised.
“I liked your planet. Now that the—” again, the incomprehensible ship’s name slid entirely over my brain “—is operational once more, I suppose we’ll find others.” He sighed. “I hope I malfunction again soon.” He stretched out a hand and fixed me a final time.
I blinked at him, and somehow, mid-blink, I stood in the center of Valencia Street.
* * *
I walked into Borderlands Books, still wondering exactly how I was wandering the streets of San Francisco in an orange Hawaiian shirt and a pair of khaki shorts three sizes too large.
A pretty girl smiled at me from behind the counter. “Hi Bill,” she said. “Where’ve you been?”
A hairless cat ran in front of me, feet scampering over floors that were badly in need of a polish.
“Goodbye,” I told it, but didn’t know why.
Copyright © 2009 Jay Lake and Ken Scholes