There’s Something Out There
“The Dogs are barking,” Kate said. She was still up reading. I had been asleep.
“They probably need to pee.” I rolled out of bed and searched for my slippers.
“I think there’s something out there.” My wife had been obsessed with ‘something out there’ since the night, a decade earlier, when a mountain lion had come in the yard. “Be careful.”
I slipped leashes on both dogs and eased out the door. The dogs lunged to the front gate, made a ‘what’s going on’ moan, did their business, and hurried back inside.
“There was something out there,” I said to Kate. “It’s not there now.” I slipped into bed and fell asleep.
Even in mid-summer, Occidental mornings can be foggy. By the time I left the house to take the dogs on their walk, the ground had dried out, but visibility was less than a hundred yards. On the top meadow I could hear the wind turbines long before I saw them. We crossed the flat meadow and headed for the path to the Rossi property. That’s when I saw the track.
Something heavy had skidded across the west side of the meadow towards the year-round spring.
I checked the dogs’ leashes and walked along the skid. It missed the spring and veered into the top of the year-round-creek channel. After twenty more yards, I could see that something metallic was stuck in the stream bed.
My first thought was that a 1958 Cadillac had fallen from the sky into the creek. After a few more steps I realized that this vehicle didn’t have any wheels and was probably some kind of spacecraft.
I turned around and took the dogs home. After I fed them, I said to Kate, “I think I figured out why the dogs were barking last night.”
“What was it,” she asked, looking up from a sketch she was working on.
“Some kind of weird vehicle. I’m gonna get a closer look.”
“Why don’t you call the Sheriff?”
“You know how I feel about the Sheriff,” I said. “I don’t want him or his deputies here unless I have no choice.” I headed for the door.
“I don’t like this. You’re going to get into trouble.”
I drove my tractor to where the spacecraft was stuck in the channel. It was tipped up at an angle so I couldn’t see the front edge. And I couldn’t walk there, because of the poison oak. So, I turned the tractor around, hooked a chain onto a piece of the spacecraft, and pulled it out until it rested on a clear area of meadow.
It was a circular spacecraft with a radius of about 10 feet. The vehicle was composed of an aluminum-like material, steaked with scorch marks. In the center was a transparent cockpit bubble. Cloudy enough that the pilot
could only be seen in shadow. He was slumped over and not moving.
I searched for a way to open the cockpit but found none. So, I gathered up my towing chain, loaded it into the tractor, and drove down to where my stepson David, was working on one of his projects. (David lives on our property, supporting himself by making tiny homes and doing creative mechanical-engineering projects.)
“I need your help,” I said. “I found something interesting on the property, but I don’t know how to get inside it. Bring a couple of crowbars.”
David got crowbars, and a few other tools, jumped up on the tractor next to me, and I drove him to the spacecraft.
“Whoa,” he said.
“Did you hear anything last night?”
“No,” David said. “But I fell asleep with my headphones on.”
“The pilot’s dead or injured.”
I had thought that we’d have to force the bubble latch with a crowbar, but David found an ingenious recessed compartment that contained an emergency pull. “Serious engineering,” David said.
“I’m not sure whether we should open the cockpit or not,” I said. “I’m going to call my buddy, Dr. Pete, and see what he thinks.”
I walked down to the main house to call Pete.
“What did you find?” asked Kate. She was touching up a large painting of a redwood grove.
“The weird vehicle is a spacecraft. The pilot may be alive. I’m going to ask Pete to come and check him out.”
She never looked up from her painting. “I don’t like this. You’re going to get into trouble.”
Fortunately, Pete has retired and lives nearby in Bodega. It took him 20 minutes to drive over in his jeep.
Pete scrambled onto the space craft and stared into the cockpit bubble. “The pilot might be alive. There’s no visible sign of injury.”
“I’m worried that if we open the cockpit, our atmosphere might kill him,” I said.
“You could always call the Sheriff and let them decide.”
“I’m not real fond of the Sheriff,” I said. “It’s six of one, half-dozen of the other. Can’t let him just sit there.” I grabbed the emergency pull and popped open the cockpit.
The spacecraft air had a slight ozone scent. Dr. Pete examined the exposed head of the pilot, who was human like but for the sage-colored skin. He was wearing a flight suit, including a helmet without a faceplate. They were strapped into their seat, leaning forward as if unconscious.
Pete placed his hand on their skin. “I think the pilot is alive. We need to get him out of here.’
David, Pete and I carried the pilot to the guest house and stretched him out on the guest bed; with his head on the pillow his booted feet were off the bed.
“Is he still alive?” I asked.
Dr. Pete did an examination. Felt for a pulse, checked for breath, listened with a stethoscope, and rolled back their closed eye lids. “Maybe,” he said. “If we were in the clinic, we could do a full-body scan.”
“We don’t want to go to the clinic,” I said.
Just then the pilot gave a high-pitched shriek. His body went into convulsions and then sank into the mattress as if a lead weight had been placed on its chest.
“I’m pretty sure he’s dead now,” said Dr. Pete. “Probably couldn’t handle the atmosphere.”
We stood over the body. I thought about saying the last rites but decided against this.
“What do you want to do?” Pete asked.
I thought a bit. “Well, if we call the Sheriff’s department, they’ll come over and make a big whoop-de-doo. They’ll be Sheriff’s deputies driving all over my property and then the press and God knows who else. And they’ll take this poor visitor and give him a big-time autopsy. Slice him and dice him until his own mother wouldn’t be able to recognize one bit.” I winced. “Somehow I think he deserves better. He deserves a little privacy. Dignity.”
Dr. Pete nodded.
“Let’s just bury him on the upper meadow.” I looked at him. “The only people that know about this are you and me, Kate and David.”
David wanted to tinker with the spacecraft. I agreed, in return for him making our visitor a nice pine coffin – extra-long.
When the coffin was finished, we put the visitor in the coffin and transported him to the upper meadow. Just before we sealed the lid, it occurred to me that the visitor might had something personal in the spacecraft that he would want to have buried with him. So, I checked the cockpit area, but all that I could find was a visor for his helmet. I brought that back and snapped it on. Then we nailed the lid shut, lowered it in the deep hole we’d dug, and then filled the grave with our loamy soil. (The next day, I drove the tractor back and forth, using the scraper blade, until I had obliterated all signs of the spacecraft skid and the top of the visitor’s grave.)
“The Dogs are barking,” Kate said. She was still up reading. I had been asleep.
“They probably need to pee.” I rolled out of bed and searched for my slippers.
“I think there’s something out there.”
I slipped leashes on both dogs and eased out the door. The dogs pulled me to the front gate, gave a ‘what’s that noise’ shrug, did their busines, and hurried back inside.
“There is something out there,” I said to Kate. “David’s playing weird music, very loud.”
“At 2 o’clock in the morning?”
“He’s your son. Perhaps you should be the one to talk to him.”
“Better you do it. The dogs can stay with me.” Kate patted the bed and the dogs settled into the hollow where I had been sleeping.
I grabbed a flashlight and trudged up the hill to David’s compound: a cluster of tiny homes and miscellaneous mechanical projects, surrounding what had been our barn and was now his workshop. David was inside, welding to the sound of what I took for trance music generated by someone’s AI program. The bass was up so high that everything on the floor, that wasn’t attached to a piece of equipment, was bouncing up and down. I could feel the treble in my fillings.
I waited for five minutes, until David finished his job and pushed back the hood. “Dave, would you please turn down your music? It’s keeping us awake.”
He flashed a goofy smile. “it’s awesome, isn’t it?” He waved to the other end of the barn. “I figured out how to power up the spacecraft and operate its sound system.”
That’s when I realized that he had stationed the spacecraft on a metal platform and its lights were on. “How did you do that?”
“The ship runs on DC power generated from a fuel cell. The cell stopped working; that’s why the ship crashed. I rigged up one of our old Fluke inverters to send 72 volts to the main line and everything kicked on.”
“Including the music?”
“No. I was trying to get the ship to fly but I only succeeded in turning on the sound system.” David grinned. “Pretty awesome, huh.”
I nodded. “Where does the music originate?”
“I’m not sure. Probably an internal drive but maybe from their own extra-terrestrial music system.”
“What other channels are there?”
“So far, this is all I can get.”
“Let me know if they start playing Coltrane,” I said. “In the meantime, please turn it down.”
David scrambled into the cockpit and turned the music down.
“What else have you learned to do?”
“That’s about it. And the signals.” He did something and the ship’s lights began to flash. After a minute, David turned those off and climbed down. “What do you think about my taking this to Burning Man?”
“I forgot that you were going to Burning Man. It’s in a couple of weeks?”
“Yeah. And it would be so awesome if I could park the craft in our camp.” He laughed. “And at night, I could play the music.”
“Why not?” I said. “Maybe some of the Burning Man techies can figure out the rest of the craft’s controls.”
“Thanks, Bob. This is going to be awesome.”
I walked back to our house and told Kate about my conversation with David.
“Why did you agree to let him take the space thing to Burning Man,” she said. “He’s going to get into trouble.”
“He’s your son.” I pushed the dogs over to her side of the bed, slid beneath the covers, and went to sleep.
“David wants to talk to you,” Kate said, handing me the land line. I had been asleep.
“Hmm.” I took the phone. It was 3:15am.
“Pops, I need your help.” David said.
I knew he was in trouble because David never calls me Pops. Sometimes ‘Bob’. Or ‘you’. Or ‘blank’ standing for ‘that strange guy who married my mom 35 years ago.’
“What happened? Did the craft fly away?”
“No. Its owners showed up to claim it.”
“That must have been weird.”
“Not really. Everyone in our camp is in costume and stoned, so at first no one paid much attention.”
“What did they say?”
“They made their way to me and asked where I found their ship.”
“What did you tell them?”
“I gave them your name. I hope that was okay.”
“Did they fly off in the ship?”
“No. It’s not that simple.”
“They want their pilot.” David paused. “I told them you would take care of that.”
“When are they going to show up here?”
“It’s complicated.” David paused. “First they want to meet you. Then we need to transport their ship back to the ranch. They want you to show them where their pilot is buried and then they need to do something I don’t understand.”
“Some kind of ceremony?”
“Who knows. They’re aliens.” David’s voice deepened. “There’s one thing more, Pops. We can’t leave until we pay the Burning Man folks some money.”
“There was a little problem with Burning Man security. One of the red-neck guards pulled his gun on the aliens. They melted his gun, and his hand was damaged.”
“Whoa,” I said. “Sounds intense.” I tried to imagine the scene. “It could have been a lot worse.”
“For sure. Fortunately, Jerry was there and got everyone to chill out. The red-neck guards left.”
“Where are the aliens?”
“They left. I told them to come back tonight after you arrive.”
I hung up the phone and got back in bed. Kate was still reading. “You were right,” I said. “David did get into trouble. We need to go to Black Rock, tomorrow.”
“I always wanted to go to Burning Man,” Kate said.
“Bring your checkbook.” I turned out my light and went to sleep.
After breakfast, we packed the SUV, parked our dogs with a neighbor, and set off for Black Rock. We stopped at Ikeda’s, in Auburn, to pick up pies for David’s camp, and another time, in Reno, to eat Basque food, turned north on 447 and reached the Burning Man gates at sunset. I’d been talking to David on my cell phone, and he advised me to enter at the utility gate, where he was waiting with three security guards.
Given that it was 98 degrees on the playa, the guards were way overdressed. Their leader, Maury, stuck out his hand. “Your son owes us money.”
“You’ll get your money once I make arrangements to transport the craft.”
“Jerry said I should get you to pay for Zeke’s injury.”
“I understand that, but my lawyer said not to pay you anything until two conditions are met. One, we are in possession of the craft. Two, you give us a legal statement that indemnifies us for any future medical bills.”
“I don’t know anything about this,” said Maury.
“I’m going to my son’s camp,” I said.
“Morning Glory,” David added.
“Talk to Jerry,” I told Maury. I rolled up the window and we headed across the playa to David’s camp.
“I didn’t hear you talk to an attorney,” Kate said.
“I didn’t need to. I figured this out on my own.”
Kate shook her head. “You’re gonna get us all in trouble.”
Morning Glory was on the north side of the Burning Man encampment. The camp consisted of roughly two-dozen vehicles parked in a circle with a small circus tent in the middle.
We arrived at the end of dinner. Kate brought out the Ikeda pies and set a couple on each dining table. Within a few minutes we had met every camp member.
A young woman walked up to me. “You’re David’s dad.” The right side of her tan face was dotted with glitter. She wore only a bikini bottom and exotic designs wrapped around her torso. I couldn’t help noticing her ample bosom.
Kate stepped between us. “Hi, Claire.” She turned to me, “Claire is my favorite checker at Bohemian Market.”
“Kate is David’s mom,” I said to Claire, struggling to focus on her eyes.
“No way,” Claire said. “Kate is much too beautiful to be David’s mom.”
“That’s so sweet.” Kate hooked her arm in Claire’s. “I’ve never been here before. Why don’t you show me around?” They ambled off.
David introduced me to the camp organizer, Davis. “What’s the plan?” She asked.
“I talk to the spacecraft owners and negotiate the removal of their vehicle,” I said. “Then we all go back to my place and finish the deal.”
The aliens didn’t show up until 3am. I was too wired to sleep and stayed up talking to David, Henry, and various Morning Glory participants. Around midnight, David cranked up the spacecraft sound system and alien trance music thundered across the playa. This attracted a substantial crowd of Burning Man partygoers, who formed a ring outside Morning Glory and jumped up and down in rhythm to the alien beat. Around 2am, Jerry showed up and asked us to turn down the music because they’d gotten a complaint from the Washoe County Sheriff’s Department. I told David to shut it off, pointing out that our alien friends probably wouldn’t show up if there was a big crowd.
The party ended and the playa got very quiet. There was no moon, and the stars filled the entire sky.
I became aware of a black object coming in from the northeast. There was a rush of wind, a very faint bump, and the spacecraft set down about 20 yards from camp.
Security guards moved towards the craft, but I yelled at them to get back. Jerry joined me and the guards retreated.
The spacecraft bubble opened, and two figures got out.
I walked across the playa and met them at their ship.
Up close, the two aliens were dressed like my visitor. The hoods on their helmets were up and I could see that their skin was a sage color but with a tint of henna. One was at least seven foot tall and the other only a few inches shorter.
The tallest alien walked close to me and extended a form of collapsible metal rod. I grabbed the end of it and heard a voice, “Are you the one who found our ship?”
“Yes. My name is Bob. Your ship crashed onto my property.”
“Where is “!@#$%^&*”? The alien articulated a name that sounded like a string of Z’s and G’s with no consonants.
“Your pilot is buried on my property. He appeared to be dead and, therefore, we gave him a proper burial.”
“How did you bury him?’
“We left his body intact. We dressed him in his flight suit, including his helmet. We wrapped his body in linen, set it into a pine box, nailed the lid shut, and buried him about four feet deep in loamy soil.”
“And you are sure his body was not violated in any manner?”
“Yes. Once I decided he was dead, I thought he should be allowed to have a dignified death, so his body was not violated.”
“Good. Take me to him.”
“How do you want me to travel? Should I get into your ship?”
“No. I want you to give me the coordinates of the burial site. I will meet you there, tomorrow night.”
“Okay. Anything else?”
“Yes. I need you to transport “!@#$%^&*”’s craft to the burial site. Our reprocessing requires the presence of his ship.”
I gave the alien my address and then let go of his communication rod. He and his companion reentered their spacecraft and left without a sound.
“What’s happening?” David asked as Davis, Jerry, and a few others pressed close.
“It’s all good,” I answered. “They want me to return to the ranch, with their craft, and dig up our visitor.”
“I don’t know, and I think that’s their business.”
I found a vacant air mattress and fell asleep next to the RV where Kate was sleeping. In the morning she roused me with hot coffee and a bagel. “I hear we’re going back today.”
“Yes. We need to dig up the pilot’s body and hand it over to his comrades.”
“Are they mad at us?”
“I don’t think so.” I scratched my head. “I’m not sure how to describe their emotions. Alien.”
We had breakfast, waited for David to load the spacecraft onto his flat-bed truck, and then headed out of the camp. When we reached the Burning Man utility gate, no one tried to stop us.
We turned south and headed for Reno and Interstate 80.
Kate had invited Claire to ride back to Occidental with us. “She’s in an abusive relationship,” Kate explained. “Claire needs a safe haven for a bit.”
The two of them talked the whole way back – six hours – and from what I heard, Claire’s ex-boyfriend, Kevin, is an asshole.
Kate invited Claire to stay with us until she got better housing. We stopped in Camp Meeker while Claire got her things out of Kevin’s cabin. She loaded them into her Prius, followed us to our ranch, and moved into the guest house. “We never use it anyway,” Kate said.
I spent the rest of the day preparing for the arrival of the larger alien ship. I got out the tractor and dug up the coffin we had buried in the top meadow. Then I asked David to park the visitor’s craft next to the coffin. We covered everything with tarps. We went back to the main house, had dinner, and waited.
I invited Dr. Pete to be present when the aliens came for their friend’s body. He brought his wife, Hilarity – who everyone calls Ty. I explained my conversation with the two aliens and emphasized their concern that we might have violated their comrade’s body.
“I’m not sure how they’re planning to do it, but it sounds like they think they can resuscitate their friend,” Pete said.
“Isn’t he dead?” Ty asked.
“We couldn’t detect any vital signs but that doesn’t mean he didn’t slip into some state of suspended animation that we don’t understand,” Pete said.
“Another reason why it was a good idea not to involve the Sheriff’s Department,” I said. “They would have insisted on an autopsy and desecrated the body.”
“The Sheriff’s deputies are assholes,” Claire exclaimed. Her ex-boyfriend, Kevin, worked for the Sheriff.
Around midnight, the fog rolled in. I got the strong sense that the aliens were about to arrive. Dr. Pete and I got up, put on heavy coats, and started out the door. “It’s probably best if you stay here,” I said to the three women.
“Whenever you say that,” Kate laughed. “It means that the two of you are going to get into trouble.”
The top meadow was covered in ten-feet-high moist fog; above that was crisp star-filled sky. We pulled the tarps off the coffin and the spacecraft and sat down to wait.
A black object swept in from the west. There was a rush of wind, a damp bump, and the spacecraft set down about 20 yards from us.
The spacecraft bubble opened, and two figures got out.
I walked across the meadow and met them at the coffin. I used a crowbar to pop the top off.
The tallest alien leaned down and examined his stricken comrade. He touched the pilot’s forehead with an instrument.
The tallest alien said something to his companion, who rushed to the coffin. They picked up their comrade, carried him to his spacecraft, lowered him into the cockpit, and closed the cockpit bubble.
“Notice there was no rigor mortis,” Dr. Pete said. “The pilot’s carcass has not begun to putrefy.”
The tallest alien ran a power cord from their craft to the side of the pilot’s ship. The shorter alien constructed a sort of plastic awning over the spacecraft.
David had joined our observation party. “Whatever they’re going to do, they don’t want it recorded by our spy satellites.”
Once the awning was assembled, the tallest alien flipped a switch and the pilot’s craft began to flash different colors.
“Looks sort of like a merry-go-round,” said Kate. She, Ty, and Claire had joined our observation. “We brought some fruit.”
“And a bottle of wine,” said Ty.
“I made some Zucchini bread,” said Claire.
“What do you think is happening?” I asked Pete.
“It’s like a cosmic jumpstart,” David said.
“Maybe they have their own version of a defibrillator,” Pete said.
The process went on for fifteen minutes. “I think this is equivalent to rebooting a big computer system,” I said. “Our visitor got damaged and, therefore, his comrades had to reboot him.”
In another five minutes, the flashing lights subdued, and the pilot’s craft went to steady-state blue. The tallest alien removed the power cord from the visitor craft, rolled it up, and stuffed it in the hull of the larger spacecraft.
The two aliens stood at the edge of the visitor craft. The cockpit bubble opened. The pilot stood up.
Kate, Claire, David, Dr. Pete, Ty, and I applauded.
The pilot climbed out of his craft and embraced his companions. Then they took out instruments and began to inspect his vehicle.
“They’re probably hungry,” Kate said. She, Ty, and Claire approached them and held out food. The taller aliens demurred but the pilot accepted a piece of Claire’s Zucchini bread. The aliens continued their inspection, as the ladies walked back.
“They eat Zucchini bread,” Claire beamed.
“The basis for a significant trading relationship,” I said.
“Zucchini for technology,” David laughed. “What could be better?”
In a few minutes, the taller aliens walked back to their ship. The pilot approached, carrying a communication device. He extended it to me. I heard a deep voice, “Thank you for your consideration.”
“You are welcome,” I said. “We didn’t know exactly what to do, so we decided to treat you the way we would want to be treated.”
“Not everyone would have responded so compassionately,” the pilot said. “Without your thoughtfulness, my existence would have been terminated. I would like to do something to thank you.”
“You don’t have to do anything to thank me,” I said. “Your appreciation is sufficient.”
“Have some more Zucchini bread,” Clare blurted, shoving a dish forward. I thought for a moment she might rip off her blouse.
The pilot gracefully bent down, selected a portion, and inserted it into his mouth. Smiled.
“Can I talk to him?” Kate asked.
I handed her the communication rod.
“We were happy to help you,” Kate said. “I wonder if it would be possible for you to arrange for Bob and me to visit your world?”
The pilot said something to Kate that I didn’t hear and then turned towards his comrades. There was a high-frequency exchange. He turned back to Kate.
“That would be fine,” she said. “Here’s my email address.”
The pilot retracted the communication device. He bowed to each of us in turn, taking a particularly deep bow in front of Claire. Then he turned, walked back to his spacecraft, slipped inside the cockpit bubble, lowered it, and flew off.
His companions got into their craft. Lowered the cockpit bubble and flew off.
“When are you going to visit them?” Ty asked Kate.
“In several weeks. They have to establish visitors’ quarters for us.”
We turned and began walking down the hill.
“When you go,” David said. “See if you can score me one of their fuel cells.” He turned and walked back to his compound.
“I’m so jealous,” Ty said. “I want to go with you.”
“I’ll make sure that you’re on the next visitation.” Kate said, patting her hand.
“What’s the pilot’s name,” Claire asked.
“!@#$%^&*” I replied.
“I’ll call him Zorge,” Claire said. “I think he liked me.”
“I thought so, too,” Kate said. “But best to go slow at first. I think he’s shy.”
Claire smiled and headed to the guest house.
“Quite a night,” Dr. Pete said. “Just think, I was present at the first alien contact, and I can’t tell anyone.”
“You could tell them, but no one would believe you,” I said.
“Unless you worked in an Elvis sighting,” Ty said. “Good night, you guys. Thanks for inviting us.” We hugged and then they got in their car and headed home.
“The dogs are barking,” Kate said.
“They probably need to pee.” I greeted the dogs at the door and slipped on their leashes.
Kate hugged me.
“You’re going to get us in trouble,” I laughed.
“I can’t wait,” she said.
Photo attribution: Bob Burnett