John T. Anderson
42 Foliage Lane
8 Firstmonth 459A
Last night Panu had to work all night, which should come as no surprise to you, since you know he works at the observatory. I looked forward to having the house to myself, because I had some reading to do, and that is best done in total solitude.
So there I was in the living room, gloriously alone in the house, curled up in my favorite chair under my reading lamp, with a mug of warm harng on the table. Dr. Bobo Lornifar had sent me two books from Earth: a book on flying saucers and a cookbook. I wanted to review them to see if they could be used in my English conversation group. The cookbook would give insight into idioms (such as ‘easy as pie’) and would serve as a survival tool for any of my students who might eventually visit Earth. The flying saucer book is also invaluable. If you’re going to visit a planet which has no interstellar ties, it’s best to inform yourself in advance of local prejudices and misconceptions about visitors.
I flipped through the flying saucer book first, just to get rid of it. I’ve never been able to take this stuff seriously. Humans see saucer-shaped shiny metal vehicles, yet spacecraft fly through space, not air, and do not need to be aerodynamically sound—and they are generally made of ceramic materials, not metals. (By the time a race of creatures becomes truly space-worthy, metals are too precious to be squandered like that.) Ever since a certain movie on the topic, all sightings tend to be alike: first there are magnetic or electrical disturbances; then there is a low hum, which gets louder and louder until the building or vehicle shakes; then there are blinding lights, strange noises, and odd voices. Finally, Homelanderoid beings appear. They capture the stupefied Humans and perform a series of medical examinations. Afterwards, the Humans find themselves miles away, with no recollection of how they got there! The really hysterical part is that these ‘alien visitors’ are always supposed to dress alike!
I flipped through the lavishly illustrated book and set it down with a chuckle. I just parked it there on the floor next to my chair, and reached for the cookbook. At least this was truly serious and useful stuff! Before long I was completely engrossed in it.
Some time later, I picked up the mug of harng in one hand and sipped from it while I reviewed the procedure for making a roux. It has been a couple of years since I’ve eaten any food from the Old Planet, as I like to call Earth, so the cookbook was a trip down memory lane. Ah! Here’s something I can adapt for use in the kitchen! I set the mug on the end table, held the book in my left hand (with a finger to mark my place), and reached down to the floor for the pad and pencil to make a few notes.
That’s when it started. The lights went out! All I could see were two dimly glowing squares where the living-room windows had been. Now this is something completely unexpected: power failures on Homeland! Somehow I figured that their technology would be so advanced, that it would never happen. My eyes adjusted to the darkness as my mind recovered from the astonishment, so I got up and cautiously made my way through the house. The stairs were easy to find, but since the upstairs hallway was pitch-black, I couldn’t see my way to the closet at all. I used my right hand to feel my way down the hall, and my left hand to explore the darkness in front of me. I nearly tripped on the rug, but I did make it safely to the closet.
Now, where did I put that camping lantern? I knelt to feel the objects on the floor of the closet. Let’s see, that must be a package of light bulbs. This cold, metallic thing must be Panu’s toolbox. Ah! Here it is! In my haste to pull it out, I knocked something over, and heard the sounds of a liquid guggling out. When I switched the lantern on, I discovered I had spilled a container of multi-purpose household cleaner. (Why wasn’t the lid on tight?) With the battery-powered lantern to guide my shadowy way, I got a towel from the bathroom and mopped up the mess. Now, down the stairs and back to my reading. I just assumed that the power failure wouldn’t last very long, so I ignored it.
Finally, back in my chair! Reading by the lantern’s light took some getting used to, but I quickly became engrossed in the book again. I think maybe a half hour had gone by when I noticed that my mug was making a funny rattling noise. I looked up in time to watch the miniature circular ripples in the harng as the mug slowly vibrated to the edge of the table and fell on the floor!
What could possibly have caused that? The mug had been half full, so I had to get a rag from the kitchen to wipe up the mess. Two spills in one evening!
The floor started to vibrate while I was wiping up the harng. The table was vibrating, and the lantern was flickering! I used the rag to tighten the tiny light bulb. In the process, I bumped the chair and knocked the book to the floor. That’s when I first noticed the low hum. This was getting strange!
I tried to dismiss the similarity between this experience and the UFO book from my mind, without being altogether successful. I sat myself back into the chair and continued reading the cookbook. Most of the recipes are useless, but preparation techniques can be adapted, and the flavor combinations are inspiring. I was reading through all the variations on white sauce, when I suddenly remembered my college days! I flipped to the back of the book to find the index, and…
The humming got louder. In fact, it was so loud that I could tell what direction it was coming from! Maybe I should go look. I told myself that it’s probably something ordinary, that the UFO book had simply set my nerves on edge. So I continued to scan through the index.
Let’s see, where are the Gs? Here we go: Game. Garbanzo. Garlic. Gefuellte fish. Gelatin. Giblets. Gimlet. Ah! Here it is: Ginger! And yes, there is an entry for ginger beer, my favorite drink from college days!
By this time the humming became very loud, and was accompanied by other sounds; something like a pattern of musical pitches. It was definitely coming from the direction of the kitchen in the back of the house. (And I had just been there!)
A shiver ran up my spine, and my heart began to race.
Back to the book. Ginger beer is on page 582. I nervously turned through the pages, and missed my mark entirely. (What is going on in the backyard, I wondered.) I landed at curry sauce. Boy, did I overshoot my goal. I pretended that curry sauce fascinated me, but I couldn’t concentrate at all. Well, no wonder, I thought; I really don’t like curry. Let’s try for page 582 again!
I tried to ignore the humming and the vibrating, but I found that I couldn’t. Even the cookbook was shaking—because my hands had acquired a slight tremor. I put my feet up, put the book face-down in my lap, closed my eyes, and took a deep breath. I held it momentarily, then exhaled slowly, counting downwards from lekto to res. I must have done it half a sixteen times.
Now, back to reality and the cookbook. Oh drat, what a huge disappointment! All they do is define ginger beer, there’s no recipe! “A fermented beverage of very low alcoholic content, flavored with ginger.” Heck, I don’t need a cookbook to tell me that!
Now the noise was getting loud and the house was vibrating very strongly. If I hadn’t been so uptight, I could have gotten a very good back massage simply by leaning back in the chair. The humming noise was nearly deafening by now, and the “beep, beep” musical sounds simply could not be ignored. My heart beat so hard I thought it would explode! I could barely breathe!
My fear glued me to my chair, not one part of me could move; except my thoughts, and they were racing. What is going on in the backyard? Should I stay here and suffer whatever fate is in store for me, or go back to the kitchen and look out the window? Will it hasten my demise or unmask the illusion? Better yet: would I survive the suspense?
Gradually, I decided that investigation was better than passive acceptance, and forced myself to stand up. I was so preoccupied, I nearly dropped the book! I caught it just in time, and placed it carefully in the chair. It might vibrate off the table onto the floor. Then I had the giddy thought that it might not matter what happens to the book!
I cautiously made my way around the corner into the dining room. The lantern cast unhelpfully ghost-like shadows on the walls. The noises were louder and louder, and I could see strange lights in the kitchen. A few steps more, and all will be revealed. I gulped for air, and my arms were shaking in terror: it’s now or never, kitchen or bust!
I stood before the kitchen window in total disbelief of what I saw. The window glowed with a bright, white light, punctuated by flashing bits of red, green, yellow, and blue. The kitchen curtains obscured the details, so my feelings were mixed: should I open the curtains and look? Some of the noises began to sound like voices, but I couldn’t understand them; and I could barely make out a couple of strangely clothed figures walking around.
Just then the front door slammed! Someone entered the house! My heart jumped.
“John?” came a voice out of the darkness. It was Panu!
I clenched my chest and breathed a sigh of nervous relief. “Panu!” I called, “what are you doing home so early?”
There was a thump in the living room as Panu bumped into a piece of furniture. I could hear him muttering to himself as he entered the kitchen.
“I said, what are you doing home so early?” I repeated.
Panu just looked casually out the window. “I came because they called!” he said, pointing at the strange lights. I turned towards him, and our eyes met. Even in the darkness I could see a strange serenity on his face, as though nothing extraordinary were happening. Imagine that, I thought in wild panic, whatever is in the backyard summoned Panu telepathically!
“Come with me!” Panu commanded suddenly, and grabbed me by the arm. I was so startled, that I obeyed; but a thousand contradictory thoughts were racing through my mind. Panu flung open the door to a blast of wintery air, and the light nearly blinded me. I covered my eyes with my hands, and stumbled down the steps to the lawn.
“Don’t push!” I complained to Panu, who was behind me, “I can’t see a thing!”
Between the cracks in my fingers, I could see a yellow Homelanderoid figure approaching us.
“Switch off that light, Harga!” it said, and the big white light faded off. It looked like a black man in a yellow plastic jumpsuit, like an ordinary Thorgelfaynese man.
Panu walked out and gave him a greeting-hug! “I got home as soon as I could,” he apologized, “but why did you call me at work? Don’t you have the home phone number?”
The man nodded apologetically, “We tried that, but the digits must be transposed. Perhaps you can give me the phone number, and we can correct our records.” Panu proceeded to do just that. The yellow-suited man scribbled a note on a small pad and shoved it into a pocket.
“What’s going on here?” I demanded, finally locating my voice.
Another yellow-suited man walked out of the darkness. “Hapdorn Department of Public Works,” he announced, tapping a badge on his chest. “My name is Harga.” He gave me a greeting-hug, but I was too perplexed to put much into it. “Sorry for the inconvenience, but as you’ve just heard, we couldn’t notify you.”
“Notify me of what?” I asked. There was a giant yellow truck parked on Greenway, and all sorts of equipment strewn on the lawn on that side of the house.
“The breaker change,” he explained in a matter-of-fact way. “These distribution breakers have a life expectancy of three hexadecades, but we replace them every sixteen years, just in case. Yours was scheduled to be changed on…” he paused to look on his clipboard, “on Thirdday of next week, but as you know it blew early.”
“You mean,” I gasped, “you’re from the power company?”
“That’s right!” the man boasted, “As soon as we see a red light on the old status board, we rush to the scene! You’ll have power in another sixteen minutes, I’d say.” He slapped me on the back and trudged off.
What a night! The lights were back on in no time, and Panu and I celebrated with a cup of harng. Boy, am I embarrassed! I should never have explained to Panu what I had feared. The neighbors even came over to see what all the laughing was about.