You can’t understand Asklant without reflecting on the troubled decade of the 1950s. She was the first Zerpicker to participate in the WCCIJ study of Earth, and she worked for us from 1947 to 1961. (That was a time when Humans had just emerged from a destructive international temper tantrum only to find themselves straight-jacketed in a dangerous diplomatic stalemate.) Interest in UFOs and extraterrestrial civilization was at a fever pitch, but it was ambivalent. UFO fans disputed whether visitors from the stars would enslave or liberate the Human race, but they did agree that the landings were imminent.
I guess it was only appropriate that the number of UFO sightings rocketed skyward to astronomical proportions. Asklant was fascinated by the UFOlogists, by the Humans who nervously expected interstellar company with a mixture of hope and dread.
So it happened one day that Asklant finally decided to capitalize on this situation. Her noble goal was to educate the Human race about civilization, to defuse their fears of us, and to pave the way for our future self-disclosure.
She joined the circus.
Now I know you think that is odd; after all, what special quality could an ordinary, middle-aged, overweight anthropologist offer a circus? She wasn’t pretty enough to pose in the center ring or assist a magician. She wasn’t athletic enough to ride the elephants or fat enough to be mistaken for one. She couldn’t swing from the trapeze or walk the tightrope.
So you are probably wondering how she weaseled her way in. She was the bearded lady! That’s one thing people tend to forget about Zerpickers. Anyway, Asklant got the job on the strength of her stubble, and started work after a few weeks of not shaving. Since Asklant was based on the Moon, locating the itinerant circus was not much of a problem.
The people filed through the sideshow, dutifully scrutinizing Asklant as they went. She sat on a bench under a grand, over-decorated sign that proclaimed: “Asklant, Bearded Queen of Mars.”
One youth stayed back and gaped at her for quite some time.
Finally he took a deep breath and pushed his hands down into his pockets. “Are you really the Queen of Mars?” he asked, trying to appear casual.
“No, I’m not,” Asklant admitted, “The circus loves hyperbole.” She was basking in the attention she got from the crowd. The men went from skepticism to admiration: a few doffed their hats, those who indulged in chewing tobacco spat on the sawdust floor. The women’s faces started with disgust and ended in pity.
The youth was pondering Asklant’s reply. “What’s a high purple leap?” he asked in puzzlement. “My name is Sam,” he added, and reached to shake her hand.
“Hyperbole,” Asklant repeated, making a mental note to watch her vocabulary. “That’s just a fancy word for ‘exaggeration’. The circus likes to exaggerate. I’m not a queen, and I’m certainly not from Mars!” she chuckled.
“I guess not!” Sam agreed, “You don’t look like you swim in those canals!”
“Oh, there aren’t any canals on Mars,” Asklant explained while waving at her admirers. “It’s very cold and dry. Nobody lives there at all, in fact.”
“Aw, c’mon,” he smiled broadly. “You’re just doing your high purple leap again.”
“I’m not lying,” Asklant assured him, “I went there last weekend on a guided tour!”
Sam was laughing this time. “That is really rich! You couldn’t go to Mars for the weekend! Not even if you hitched a ride on Sputnik.” He kicked the sawdust into a mound, then flattened it.
“Well, I’m not a queen, and I’m not from Mars,” Asklant said, bending over as though to tell a secret, “but I really am from outer space.”
“Really?” Sam involuntarily let a giggle escape. “What planet?”
“Zerpick,” Asklant replied. Then she turned to a gentleman to assure him the beard was real. She offered to let him pull it, but he declined in embarrassment. “My home planet is called Zerpick,” she repeated.
“Zerpick isn’t in the solar system,” Sam announced with a twinkle in his eye.
So Asklant explained where Zerpick is and volunteered to show him in the sky after the show. As they talked, he became more and more inclined to believe her story; pulling her beard was the clincher.
After a while, a group of boys Sam’s age came through the tent. Sam excitedly explained to his friends that Asklant was a real alien from outer space, even if she wasn’t a queen or from Mars. Asklant beamed with pride as he told them what to expect in an extraterrestrial. How easy it is to overcome fear and prejudice with sober discussion!
One kid soon had his fill of this nonsense. “Sam, all you’re gonna get with that story is a clean pig,” he exclaimed in frustration. “It’s hogwash, plain and simple. There ain’t no such thing as people from the stars!”
Sam quickly defended Asklant, and they took turns pulling on her beard to see that it was genuine.
“So what does that prove?” the skinny one demanded, “So what if some fat broad has to shave? That don’t mean she’s from outer space! Why, she ain’t even green!”
There was rowdy laughter.
“Heck, that probably ain’t even a lady,” came a sarcastic voice. “It’s just some man wearing a dress. I’ll bet he’s not even a real…” Sam punched the guy in the chops before he could finish his sentence, and the dispute escalated to a fist fight.
Meanwhile, Asklant sat on her bench and saw the whole situation in a new and raunchier light: the boys spoke ill of her without regard for her feelings; the women in the crowd were disgusted at her beard, and the men ogled her obscenely as they spat poison into the sawdust on the floor. Suddenly the circus had ceased to be quaint and started to smell of animal feces and Human sweat. How could she have done this? The Human problem loomed to monstrous proportions. She felt so ashamed, so futile, so helpless, so violated, so betrayed… tears welled up in her eyes, and she inconspicuously pressed a button on her watch.
The crowd fell silent as she burst into tears. Even the boys stopped fighting.
“I can’t stand this!” she screamed, “Why are you so unkind?” The crowd filed out in mortified silence. They thought the bearded lady couldn’t take their jeers and insults, in reality she was distressed at their immaturity. The boys were unskilled at apologies, as their meager efforts showed. They began to leave, but Sam lingered.
“I’m very sorry,” he stuttered, “I guess it’s all my fault.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Asklant sniffed as she daintily wiped her eyes with an embroidered hanky. “I’m okay now.” The hanky went into her purse, and it closed with a hollow snap. “I never should have tried this. I’m just not cut out for the circus, my dear.” She stroked his head, and he grinned bashfully.
“But, I mean, are you really from outer space?” he asked urgently as she turned to lift the canvas. She was leaving through the back wall of the tent. She paused for a moment, holding the canvas in her hand. Sam could see the woods beyond the circus grounds.
“Yes, I am,” she sighed, “but you don’t have to believe that.”
In the brief moment while she slipped out the back, he saw the shuttle from Earth Watch Base landing in the woods. He wanted to run after her to see the spaceship, but his desire was canceled out by his fear, so he remained glued in his spot for a moment.
“She was here, and I talked to her,” he muttered to himself in disbelief. He burst out of the tent, but it was too late. Asklant saw his tiny figure dwindle and disappear as the shuttle climbed through the clouds.
Sam’s friends found him crying softly behind the Freak Show Tent, but he refused to tell them why.