“He’s not in Area 51? What do you mean he’s not in Area 51?” said Lou Diamond’s wife. “Then you better go after him.”
“But, honey, I-”
“No!” she insisted angrily, her finger outstretched and pointing at the front door. “No buts! Go back to wherever your friggin’ beer-guzzling astronaut friend left him and bring him home. Now!”
Lou Diamond could never stand up against the will-let alone the perseverance-of his lovely Miranda. They had adopted an alien hybrid for a child, and like any parent, the mother’s prerogative often came first and foremost. Marriage, second.
The poor man had to drive all the way to Wisconsin, but when he finally got there he found the right town on his SUV’s navigation map and parked the vehicle in a tiny visitor space in front of an experimental facility for otherworldly beings, called Sytech Labs. He rolled the window down and stuck his head out. There was a sandlot baseball field across the street, and a dozen kids playing in it. On the other side was a filthy-looking, hole-in-the-wall diner and a couple of hunting gear and fishing bait shops. What a shitty place to be, and probably even a shittier place to live. He couldn’t understand why a lab for aliens or extraterrestrial beings was situated in a place like this.
The laboratory was shaped like a long, metallic industrial shed. The front and back ends were faced with brick beneath plate-glass windows. Though it was a pleasant night, still early, the building looked like it would be hot inside, and all the window blinds were drawn.
Through the glass-windowed metal door, Lou could see right into the reception room and waiting area. The receptionist looked like some kind of switchboard operator, as she wore headphones and was typing away at a computer. Behind her a wide central corridor stretched the length of the building, the big hatches to the sides needing a special keycard for entry. The door outside was electronically locked too, so Lou rapped on metal. There was no answer. He rapped again. The receptionist looked up robotically, gestured to the sign he’d somehow missed: SYTECH LABS. PLEASE PRESS BUTTON AND STATE YOUR NAME AND BUSINESS. There was a button and speaker grille on the doorpost. Lou nodded and pressed the button.
“Hello? My name is Lou Diamond. I’m from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I’m here because you’ve got my alien-er, I mean son by mistake.”
The speaker sputtered. “Excuse me, but what mistake?” The woman put on glasses to peer at Lou. A man came out of one of the labs at the head of the corridor and threw him a confused look as well. He had salt-and-pepper hair and wore a lab coat, and he had just been arguing with some other scientist-type inside the room.
“State your business, please.” The intercom was full of static.
Talking very slowly, Lou specified, “My son. I want my son back.”
“I’m sorry, say that again?”
“I want my alien back!” Lou now practically shouted.
“Wait, are you from SETI?” She paused briefly. “Because if you are, please describe the alien in detail to me. You see, sir, we can’t just authorize the release of one of the big specimens, especially those which have been experimented on.”
“Huh? What do you mean?
“Modus operandi! We need a bit more information. For example, does the E.T. have a special function or any unknown power? Does it come from this solar system or another constellation? We need to know what we’ve researched here, and what you’re retrieving. What color, shape or form is it? Does it have a name?”
“Jesus Christ! It’s Key Lime, like a friggin’ Martian, I don’t know. Oh, and my wife and I call him Ralph.”
“Ah, then Mars perhaps. No life there.”
Lou put his Iowa State Driver’s License up to the glass and pointed at the man beside her, wanting to talk to him. The scientist, who was all smiles now, nodded and bobbed to the receptionist. She went back over.
“Sir, we get all our experiments from the government,” she went on. “That’s the law. We can’t buy from a civilian. At the same time we can’t just hand out a specimen unless you’re part of the government. Or NASA at the very least.”
She just wasn’t hearing him. “Miss, you got it backward,” he said. “I’m not selling. I didn’t bring you an alien, my friend did. I came for an alien.”
The salt-and-pepper haired man overheard the rest and stepped up to the door, not six inches away. He eyed Lou for the longest time before he fitted a cigarette in a big stubby yellow holder. When he turned to speak to the receptionist, Lou heard every word. “Oh, brother. Tell him we’re closed to the public. Tell him we don’t have his alien. Or better yet, just tell him E.T. phoned home already. Just get rid of him!”
Lou shouted, “I know my alien’s in there!” He kicked on the metal door, but the man in the lab coat turned away and went back down the hall. Lou pressed the button and put his mouth right up to the speaker and yelled what color and shape and form his alien was, and that Ralph had come with the load of cargo from the last Excelsior mission.
The receptionist cut off her speaker and returned to the computer. Lou found himself yelling through a big hatch at the back of her head. Again he kicked the door, but he only stubbed his toe. It was tempered alloy and tightly fitted. A moment later he marched off, his heart beating fast and furious. The back door, beside a big concrete loading platform, was guarded by an identical buzzer and speaker. No one was there to help him. He went all around the building, back down the entrance walk and past his van. He went down the sidewalk, and when it quit at Sytech’s property line, he kept on going. He wondered if an obscure town like this one was even big enough to have a police station. Of course, there was, however, a grocery store-gas station, just like the groceries back home, only smaller, dirtier.
He looked at his watch. It was already eight o’clock at night. Probably less than five or six-hundred people lived in this town-and no more-he thought; a whole lot less than Cedar Rapids. He felt slightly homesick, missed his wife a bunch. He wondered if aliens ever felt homesick, if they were even capable of such thoughts. Empathy, shit like that.
A minute or two later he found himself standing on the concrete apron in front of the town’s volunteer fire department. It had started to sprinkle, and apparently the volunteers were taking advantage of the weather to wash trucks. He saw a few soapy buckets and an old garden hose, shut off now. Somewhere inside the firehouse a radio was playing. The next minute it started to pour, and he supposed the volunteers had gone in for a break.
The main tank truck was parked behind the pumper. The pumper was painted yellow and red, which was the color most departments adhered to. It had a rag lying on the front fender. Lou removed the rag and tossed it in a bucket. Careless. The key was right there in the ignition, attached to a little chain so it couldn’t be removed from the truck. Lou got in and wiped his wet hands on his knees, took time to examine the dash. BRAKE LOCK. Flip that off. CHOKE. Engines that aren’t run very often need a good choke to get them started.
Suddenly, Lou Diamond had a distinct thought: I am committing a crime here. He’d never have thought he had it in him.
He fired her up, slipped the choke, popped her into high range-low gear. He rolled down the window and kept one eye on the mirror, but didn’t see a soul-even as he drove along the potholed street and rounded the corner. It took a sensitive touch on the throttle and clutch to keep the cold motor smooth. He reached for the glove compartment-shaped box that housed light and siren controls, paused, and hit the lights but not the siren. Now he passed the SUV, the houses, the little grocery store-gas station. Lou was doing fifteen miles an hour tops. When he nosed into the curb at Sytech, the kid baseball players came running to see. He engaged the power take-off, floored the brake and flipped the lock on it. There was a fireman’s helmet on the seat next to him, so he picked it up. It had one of those flip-up clear plastic face shields and an emblem that read CHIEF. He put it on.
Like most pumpers, this one carried three hoses. Lou wanted to use the three-inch-for what he had planned-but he didn’t think he could handle that big a hose alone, so he unloaded the neat folds of the inch-and-a-half and screwed on the straight-stream nozzle.
The Little Leaguers were asking, “Where’s the fire, mister? Is the lab on fire?”
One boy was jumping up and down in excitement, asking, “Are you a real fireman?” and a couple of new young arrivals rolled in on bicycles.
“I’d stand back, son,” Lou said to the kid. “And no. My name’s Lou Diamond, and I ain’t no firefighter.”
“Oh, yeah,” the boy said. “You’re my mother’s favorite singer!”
“No, that would be Neil Diamond. My name is Lou.”
“You dufus!” Another chubbier kid punched him in the arm and said. “He’s the actor who starred in all those Kiefer Sutherland films. Only he ain’t wearing his makeup.”
Lou hauled the limp hose out in a great arc. Carefully he laid the nozzle on the stoop right beside the front door. He didn’t ring the bell this time. He didn’t even look inside.
Back at the truck, he revved the throttle and pressed the lever labeled PRIME. Most of the newer trucks in Iowa had quick-prime pumps, but you never could tell; every truck is different. Then TANK TO PUMP. He pulled that lever slowly and the pressure needle started to climb. He’d want about two-hundred pounds total, and with the small hose that was pretty much all the pressure one man could handle; hopefully it would be enough for the metal door.
The truck motor bellowed. The water hissed around in the pump, the needle steadily, but surely, rising. At two-hundred, Lou throttled back. The kids all surrounded him with excited, puzzled faces. The oldest was perhaps ten.
“Damn! I need some help,” Lou said. “I need a second man.”
One of the kids, a towhead in a striped T-shirt, said, “My dad’s in the department and I don’t know you.”
Lou took the fire helmet off and put it on the kid’s head. Patiently he explained, “All right, when I take the nozzle, I’ll need someone to pull this valve open.” His hand was on the big red valve labeled PRECONNECT. “If I charge my hose myself, before I reach the nozzle, it’ll be flopping all around, and there’s no man who could catch and control it.”
The towhead said, “Where’s the fire? I don’t see any smoke.”
A few kids stepped back, taking themselves out of it.
“Anybody here got an alien?” Lou asked.
Three kids nodded. The towhead too. Another four kids were confused.
“If someone here took your alien, what would you do?”
One of the kids said, “Tell the police.”
Another kid said, “I’d telephone an astronaut.”
Others said, “Look for it. Go out in the street and leave a trail of Reeses Pieces.”
Lou nodded. “And what if somebody tried to experiment on your alien?”
One kid thought he’d “kill them.” Another said he’d “punch them in the face.” Then the towhead himself looked thoughtful.
“Kids, the name’s Diamond. Lou Diamond. Know that name well. I’m in this town because Sytech Labs has my alien. Ralph’s a real good kid, just like human sons, and the boy means a lot to me and my Miranda. They’ve got him inside that building, and unless I stop them, they’re going to cut him up and kill him. Help me free him. I’m going to get the nozzle and when you see me raise one hand, I want you to jerk that valve. If you help me, I’ll buy you all ice cream. That’s about all you have to do. Pull the valve and get me streams of water.”
With that said, Lou went up to Sytech Labs not knowing whether he’d have the kids’ cooperation-not to mention the water-or not. And he picked up the end of the nozzle, opened it-only the barest bit-so the initial rush wouldn’t twist him around. He glanced over his shoulder, raised his hand and got set. The rain had vanished. It became a rather nice Wisconsin night, as the fire engine roared. Inside, where the receptionist sat, came a swishing noise. She shrieked when the surge of water took the great metal door out of its hinges. The children cheered on. Lou shut down the hose, stepped through the destroyed entryway of a space he’d made. “Excuse me, miss,” he said. “I honestly didn’t want to do this, but you and that scientist forced my hand. I’ve come for my alien.”
She jerked the switchboard headphones right off her head as the water pooled around her feet. Lou took the keycard off her desk. He dragged the hose past her and opened the first hatch. The salt-and-pepper haired scientist was standing beside another man at a big computer terminal. The scientist quickly exited through another door. But the other man wore a blue suit and an expression of curiosity that invited Lou to explain the commotion.
“Excuse me,” Lou said, dropping the hose and shutting the hatch. He then closed the second door. The laboratories were bound to be somewhere in this building, especially if there were all these strange, expensive computers scattered about. He’d just look until he found them.
Suddenly, a couple of lab coats were using their keycards and running toward him-one, the salt-and-pepper haired scientist who had been at the front door before. Lou took the hose once more and washed them-no, tumbled them back down the main hall like an overflowing bathtub filled with toys. There wasn’t a soul in the room adjacent, just some mail cubicles and the company’s coffee-making table. “Ralph?” Lou asked.
The corridor was awfully long. The place sure didn’t look this long from the outside. Then the director opened his office door. Lou closed it with ten seconds of straight water at two-hundred pounds per square inch. Heads popped out into the interior hall, and Lou, wearing an expression of forcefulness, bellowed at them, “I’m looking for my alien!” But they just screamed and ducked.
The water was ankle-deep now. He pushed into Chemistry Lab Five. No people, but the cages were filled with strange otherworldly specimens. The scientist from before was coming down the slippery hall like a broad jumper, running head down, his fists clenched and his broken cigarette holder jutting out of his mouth. Twenty feet away, Lou slammed him down. He rolled over and pushed through the nearest laboratory door. He sailed out of there like the Titanic. On top of the man-a lime-colored alien blur, skidding tentacles splayed like a moon landing. Hitting the inner corridor wall hard, he pushed off and then raced down the flooded hall toward the back entrance.
“Ralph! It’s me. Get over here!”
And the alien braked-gurgled too-slowed from a dead running slide to stop. Then he turned his head and looked at the man who spoke. One ear-well, then it only had one ear-was cocked and nervous.
“Ralph, Ralph. That’ll do. It’s your dad.”
And Ralph came over. Delicately placing each tentacle, like it was important how he set it ahead of him, Ralph returned. He came on very slowly, and Lou didn’t try to hurry him. His hybrid for a boy was safe. When he was abreast of the scientists, he fired off an evil look that pressed all of them against the corridor wall. The receptionist had fled.
Upon leaving, Lou jammed the hose nozzle in between the broken doorframe and the wall so the water wouldn’t stop whipping around. Sodden papers lay in puddles. Tons of computers lay damaged on the floor. When he stepped outside with Ralph, he saw that all the kids’ hands were clapping. Then they ran off. The fire truck was still roaring, and he felt pretty good. Ralph just stood there, gurgling and pulling on his father’s coattail.
Together, they waited for the police to come.
* * *
Later on that night, Lou was driving back home when he looked over at Ralph. “Are you hungry?” he asked, and Ralph faced him from the passenger side, gurgling some kind of reply that meant “Yes, dad.”
“I can’t believe those deputies slapped me with a fine,” he added. “Go figure.” A few miles down U.S. 41 he spotted a twenty-four hour Wendy’s with a drive-up window. He ordered a double cheeseburger and fries for himself and twenty chicken sandwich patties, plain. “Hold everything, even the buns. They’re for my alien. He’s a Vegan.”
Then he turned on I-60, enjoying the twilight. He saw the bandages on Ralph’s right tentacle. When he examined his son’s limb, he saw scarred and broken tissue. Also, he’d wondered if they had already experimented on him. “You okay, son?”
All he saw was a steady green glow and three slits for eyes.