The Scouting Party


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The Scouting Party

  1. 1. THE SCOUTING PARTY by D.W. MANNING Theyve only been on Earth fourteen days, and alreadythe oldest "kid" is getting restless. "I want to dance on the air." Creo demands. Creo istall, blonde, and beautiful by human standards. "Im tiredof having my feet stuck on the ground all day long." © dan manning 2006
  2. 2. Pike considers this and shrugs. Creo wants a lot ofthings. She isnt ready to fly, and hes not ready to lether. Not yet. Shell have to stay attached until he issure it is safe. It has only been two weeks and humanpreoccupation with time and impatience has already seepedinside her. "Sure," he says. "And I want a beer." She pouts. "Youre impossible." "And youre not moving toward the fridge." He moveshis arm from side to side, indicating that she should beout of her lawn chair and moving toward the refrigerator. They are enjoying a Tuesday afternoon. Sycamores andsilver maples rustle in the breeze. A wind chime, hangingfrom a branch near the kitchen window, rings occasionally. Humans, Pike has come to realize, rarely takeadvantage of their immense capacity to relax. He doesntplan on making that mistake. It is too hot in the sun so they sit just inside theopen garage door. The refrigerator hums to itself between asmall workbench and a broken-down Coke machine. Pike likesthe sound. It mixes well with the birds and the breeze.He likes this world. He breathes a deep sigh ofcontentment. Creo groans, gets out of her lawn chair, and gets Pikehis beer. Pike is in his forties, overweight, and balding. Hislegs hurt when he walks. He hasnt chosen the best host,but when they arrived it was the only thing available. They wait for Billys bus to arrive. Two schoolbusses have passed so far, and the next one will beBillys. This is Billys fifth day at school. He doesntbelong in school, but Pike decided they couldnt afford toattract attention by keeping him out. He worries about theboy. This world is already too much with him. Pike pops the beer open. His hosts preferences arehis own, so Pike likes his beer in cans. He takes one sipand watches Creo wander around the driveway, looking intothe overhead spaces in the boughs of the oak tree thattowers over the tiny property. Creo is tall and thin andwell built, with a slender, graceful neck and perfectposture. She has the best host out of all of them. Her body lends her power over the males of thisspecies, and shes already experimenting with its power.She reports that the males that loiter in front of thesupermarket are very interested in her. She isntinterested in them, because her host had preferences also.She wants a rich man. Creo has the means to get a rich 2
  3. 3. man, although her host probably didnt have the wits toaccomplish the task alone. This is, after all, a class-based society they find themselves in. Her head is not inthis world, and never will be in this world. She will not fall in love with the first guy she getsserious with, but when she does meet Mr. Right, shellnever come back. Mr. Right will be well connected andwealthy. Shell try to mold the poor son of a bitch,whoever he is, and when he doesnt change into the man shewants, shell move on, leaving him more broken-hearted (andbroke) than any man in the history of this world. Pike knows all this and wonders what he was thinkingcoming to this world. This world is not the world he hadanticipated. It is also the world he likes the most. The bus finally arrives, and Billy steps out of itinto the sunshine. The "child" is seven years old. He ismissing a front tooth and his grin makes Pike grin. Billyhas his backpack over his shoulder and a note from theteacher pinned to his shirt. He runs halfway up the drivebut stops and turns to watch the bus pull away. He wavesto his classmates and then runs up to the garage. As soon as the bus is out of sight, the childish grindisappears and is replaced by a serious, thoughtfulexpression. "Well need to find you a mate," he says toPike. He drops his backpack and opens the fridge. "Oh really?" "Most of the other students have two parents. Onemale, one female. The parents dont always cohabitate."He grabs a beer and pops it open. "How are we going to manage this?" Pike asks. He issuddenly bewildered. This sounds like a lot of work. Heis hoping to study the effects of beer on the primatemetabolism for a few more months. He grabs the beer fromBilly. "Youre supposed to be seven." He takes a sip fromthe beer. "Seven-year-olds dont drink alcohol." "No?" Billy gives Pike a wide-eyed innocent stare,but Pike isnt fooled. "No." Pike says. "Now, what about this mate? How amI supposed to attract one?" "Youll have to get off your fat ass and startrunning." Creo says. "Ive been studying it ontelevision. The females like them trim, fit." "Is that so?" Pike says. "Is that how you like them?" "I will," Creo says. "As soon as you let us interact." "Its been two weeks." Pike says. For some reasonher impatience to interact makes him uncomfortable. Some 3
  4. 4. paternal predisposition left over from his hostspersonality? Hed have to examine it later. "We also need some bling-blang." Billy saysseriously. Pike shakes his head. "Some what?" "I heard it in school today. Money, jewelry, a nicecar." "Its a social status thing," Creo says. Pike likes his favorite world just a little less thanhe did a few minutes before. "So I have to get in shapeand make some money?" He gets out of his chair. "Do Ihave any running shoes?" "In the laundry room," Creo says. "Check them forspiders. They havent been used in awhile." He finds a pair of shabby white sneakers between thewasher and dryer and takes them back to the garage. While hes lacing up his shoes, Creo says, "Why didntwe pick a family that already has wealth and power?Wouldnt that have been easier?" "No." Pike says. "Theyd have too many friends andacquaintances. Wed be found out. Sometimes poor peopleare already expected to be a little strange. These folkswere completely isolated. Virtually hermits." "Oh." Creo says. "I guess thats why youre incharge." Pike doesnt like her sarcasm, but he lets it slide.No reason for a confrontation. Last time had beendisastrous. But he cant let it go completely: "Thatsright, I am in charge here." He stands up and takes a deepbreath. "I dont think this body can do ten miles." "I doubt you can do ten blocks." Creo sits on theworkbench, her long legs dangling. "Ten bucks says I can." Creo says, "I doubt you have ten bucks, but youre on." He tries to run. Shes right. He cant go two blocksbefore he is forced to stop, his sides on fire. Gaspingfor air, he bends over and puts his hands on his knees.The pressure in his brain feels like the onset of aaneurysm. Creo jogs up easily beside him. "Ill collect mymoney when you get home." Why hadnt he picked her host instead of this one?"Up yours." Pike says between breaths. A term he learnedon television. "Dont take it too hard," Creo says. "This will beyour baseline. You need a program. You need to get inshape." She jogs away, intent on putting in a few miles. 4
  5. 5. * * * Walking back to the house, Pike is nearly run down byhis neighbor, a man named Vernon Simmons, as Simmons pullshis SUV into his driveway. "Well-well-well!" Vernon says when he sees Pikewalking along the sidewalk in running shoes and shorts."Finally getting into shape neighbor?" "Trying." Pike says. Hes never seen this manbefore, but the metabolic change in his body tells him hishost has a great dislike for Vernon Simmons. Pike knowsthe mans name because his host knows the mans name. Hedecides to make nice. "Ive got a long way to go." "I never thought Id see the day." Simmons says as hegoes to his mailbox to check for mail. "Glad to see it." "Maybe youd like to come by for a beer some time?"Pike says. He doesnt know why he asks, but it seems likethe neighborly thing to do. He has to start makingconnections in this society somehow, whether he wants to ornot, so he decides to start close to home. "Well thats a nice offer." Simmons says. "I mightjust do that." * * * "No one noticed a thing, and the teacher was in myface two times, asking me to explain things, and saying howamazing my answers were. They werent that amazing." "What do you mean, amazing"? "I just had the right answers. Thats all." "And if no one noticed anything, why do I have a noteto go speak to your teacher?" "Just tell them you read a lot to me when I was ababy. It will affirm the bull-crap they feed people aboutreading to children early. They seem to think it makessome kind of difference." Pike goes to the school the next afternoon at four. "Your Billy has been coming up with some amazinganswers." Mrs. Devonshire says. "In fact, Ive orderedsome standard metric tests to see if hes gifted," here shesmiles so wide, Pike is almost alarmed. "Possibly agenius?" "Im sure he knows his metric system Mrs. D." Pikesays. "We read to him a lot when he was a kid." "Im sure you did." Mrs. Devonshire says. "Im nottalking about the metric system, but the Preston Standard 5
  6. 6. Metric Exam for Gifted Students. Its the de factostandard test for determining children." "I see." Pike says. Billy is going to get a talkingto when he gets home. When Pike gets home, he sits Billy down on the couch.Pike paces back and forth on the living room floor,mimicking a father-son talk hes seen on television. "Son-" Billy rolls his eyes and puts his hands up. "Im notyour son. Im at least fifty Earth years older than you." "Just play along here." Pike says, annoyed. "Im incharge of this party, so listen up." He puts his handsbehind his back and continues pacing. "Youve got to tonedown the showing off at school. And I want you to failthat genius test theyre going to give you." "What test?" Billy says. "Some aptitude test or whatever." Pike says. "Itdoesnt matter. I don’t want you to draw attention toyourself by acing some test." "If I can advance a grade, Im going to." Billy says.Hes not backing down. His seven-year-old dimples aregone. His mouth is a straight line, grim, determined. Hiswater-blue eyes are steady. They make Pike uneasy. "I suppose I cant really force you to fail it." "You cant," Billy says. "By law, I have to go tothis crappy primate school. I swear to God, they coddlethese kids. No wonder they dont know anything when theygraduate. Its monkey school." * * * Pike walks every day, progressing after a few weeks toa slow jog. He makes it one mile, half a mile more, thentwo miles. He stops drinking beers and starts drinkingwater. He loses weight. He has more energy. They take their breakfasts together. "What did thisfat-ass do before we took over?" Pike wonders about hishost. He has recently taken a job at a retail outlet, andis now managing a shift. "How could he live like this?"He looks around the dingy house and knows he is alreadydoing better. "Lots of them do," Creo said. "Look at this magazine.Says theres an obesity problem." Billy says, "Are you sure we picked the most advancedspecies here? Couldnt we have been dolphins?" Creo holds up her hands and wiggles her thumbs."Opposable thumbs. Cant beat em." 6
  7. 7. "We could have been monkeys," Pike grumbles, pouringanother bowl of Rings. "They dont have these obesityproblems." "No written language," Billy says, without taking hiseyes off of the financial section of the paper. "It wouldbe boring." "Im not comfortable with these social requirements.Why should we have to jump through all of these hoops?Couldnt we stay here? This isnt so bad." A few days later, Billy announces that he will handlethe money situation. "Its all right here," he says,pouring over the stock market prices in the newspaper whileslurping down cereal. "Like this stock right here," hecircles it with a red crayon. "Its going to double withintwo days, guarantee it." "How do you know?" Pike asks, intrigued. "I can see the good ones. The good ones stand out."He points to each stock with his finger as he says, "Thisone and this one and that one there is going to be huge." "Huge?" "Huge." He turns to the front of the businessarticles. "These two companies are filing for bankruptcy,"he says. "A week ago, this third company was considering amerger . . ." They buy a computer on credit and subscribe to a dial-up connection to the Internet. That afternoon, after hisrun, Pike opens an online brokerage account with the creditcard he finds in his hosts wallet. He turns the accountover to Billy. * * * It is fall now and Pike is in the garage doing hislast set of presses on the weight bench he has recentlypurchased. Creo is back from her dance class, where sheclaims she can walk on air. "Its close anyway," she says."The leaps are fun. The instructor is a hottie." "Whats our next step?" Pike asks. Although in thissociety, a forty-year-old man would never take advice froma nineteen-year-old wisp of a girl, Creo is still thebrains of the outfit, although Pike is the leader. "Prestige." Creo says. "We have no prestige livingin this shack." "Im not sure well be able to buy prestige." Pikesays. "I think I read that somewhere." 7
  8. 8. "It takes a lot of money." Creo says. "Thats aprerequisite. We might want to join a church, you know, todo some networking. They have lots of cults around here." "We could do that." Pike says. "Spot me." * * * A few months later Billy buys three properties. Hewants to move and rent out the shack, but Pike forbids it.Pike enters his first marathon, and is on the fundraisingcommittee at the church. Billy is class president. Creoburns all of Pikes NASCAR tee shirts. Creo begins seeingher dance instructors father, a divorced CEO of a majorfiberglass manufacturing company. "I think were almost there." Billy says, sippingchampagne. Although hes chronologically seven years old,he has a taste for champagne. "No were not." Creo says flatly. Were not evenclose." Billy frowns. "Now why do you say that?" Creo is getting ready for her date. She has becomelike a charm for her rich boyfriend, attending high societyfunctions downtown for the third week in a row. "We arenew money", she says. Billy doesnt understand. The money has been rollingin. Pike knows exactly what shes saying. He smiles as sheexplains it to Billy. "Its like a club," she studies her reflection to putsilver earrings in her newly pierced ears. "We might havemoney, but well never be like, I dont know, the Kennedysor anything. Well be just another moderately well offfamily." "Why couldnt we be Kennedys?" Demands Billy."According to my plan, we should accumulate, with our realestate ventures alone—" Creo sighs. "It doesnt matter how much weaccumulate," Creo explains in a tired voice. "Were newmoney. Were not old money. No amount of real estate ormoney is going to change it. Well just be consideredhillbillies who got lucky. Bumpkins." "Bumpkins?" Outside, a car horn beeps once. "Thats what I said," Creo makes her way to the door."I got to go." She exits, comes just short of adding a "ta-ta" andfinger wave, and she runs out to the Lexus in the street. 8
  9. 9. "Why doesnt that boy ever come in when he picks herup?" Pike says. Hed like to meet the guy whos probablyscrewing his first officer. Billy sits at the kitchen table pouring over realestate listings. He grips his cell phone in one greententacle. He says, "Bumpkins?" Pike notices the tentacle. "For Gods sake Billy, putthat damn thing away." "Theres nobody here but us chickens." Billy says,grinning. He gently puts the phone down and the slimygreen appendage disappears under the table. "I dont want to see that again. Do you understand?" "Yes sir." Billy says. He changes the subject. "Imthinking of investing in a REIT with some of the guys in myinvestment club. What do you think?" Pike backs toward the kitchen. "I have no idea whatyoure talking about. Ill be in the garage. Just keepdoing what youre doing." He sits down in his lawn chair with his fit body andclear head and realizes he wants off of this planet, fast. Hes never felt more alone. Billy will crunch numbersuntil early morning. Creo is out with her boyfriend. Sheprobably wont come home at all. His two crew members alarm him. Their pursuit ofwhatever it is theyre chasing consumes them. He hassuggested they study this race scientifically. The medicalknowledge they could impart would change everything.Everything. But Creo and Billy dont listen to him. Theydont care. They are busy with their selfish pursuits. Why does Pike want to help these primates when itwouldnt advance the mission? Is he also looking for this"prestige" Creo keeps yammering about? Does he want to bea savior to these hapless primates? Is he looking for abig payday like Billy? Why is he working so hard to becomefit? He releases a tentacle and holds it in front of hisface, regarding it like something from another world hesnever seen before. Go back home? He looks over at the refrigerator, standing like asteadfast soldier, humming its marching dirge, keeping thebeers cold. Pike hasnt given up the beer. Hes justswitched to microbrews and designer beers. The guys at thegym call it Fu-fu beer. Pike has lost forty pounds of fatand replaced some of it with muscle. Hes getting seriouswith Sandra, who he met at the gym. He has to do a littlemind-trick to keep her from noticing anything unusual about 9
  10. 10. him. The mating on this planet is fantastic. If fornothing else, he could stay for that. A wave of despair finds him as he sits in his lawnchair. The team is wasting their opportunity here onEarth. There has to be more than just pursuing money,prestige, and love. There has to be more than this. He lets his tentacle fly and curls it around therefrigerator handle, dripping plasma. He opens therefrigerator door. Just then, Vernon Simmons walks in from the darkness.Hes carrying a six-pack of beer under his arm. "Saw yourlight on and thought Id take you up on that invi-" Hestops and stares, mouth open, when he sees Pikes tentacleextended six feet and wrapped around the refrigeratorhandle. Pike jerks his appendage back and tucks it in but thedamage is already done. Vernons eyes move from the stringof semi-translucent muck on the refrigerator door handle toPike and back to the door again. "Holy sh-" "Vernon, hold on a minute!" But its too late. Vernon disappears into the night. * * * "Well imagine that." Billy smirks, not taking hiseyes off of his computer monitor. "So he caught you withyour thing hanging out." "Shut up Billy," Pike says. Its bad enough theneighbor knows without Billys sarcasm. Billysinsubordination grows with every passing week. His successin the stock market and real estate is making his headswell. "What do you think hell do?" Billy asks. Pike frowns. "Im not sure." "Well, you know what has to happen." Billy continuesto click away at his computer. "We dont have to do that." Pike says. As much asSimmons gets under the skin, he doesnt deserve to die. "You know the rules." Billy looks at Pike and hiscalculating eyes are cold. "We didnt come here to makefriends. We came here to scope the place out. You’ve putus at risk." "No ones going to believe him." Pike says. Billy wont hear of it. "Cant have one of thenatives blabbering on about spacemen." He lights acigarette and takes a long, slow drag. He snaps the Zippo 10
  11. 11. shut with a flick of his wrist. "Once we hit the big-time,people might take him seriously. The media will try touncover everything about us when I step into the politicalarena." "I told you not to smoke in here," Pike says. Billy ignores him. He exhales the smoke through hisnose. Now Pike is worried. "Political arena?" This hasgone too far. Hes going to have to recall the mission.Creo and Billy have gone over the edge and are too involvedto make rational decisions. How did he allow this tohappen? They are all seasoned scouts. What is it aboutthis planet that makes it so difficult to stay focused? "Im going to be president some day." Billy says, asif he is talking about going to the store for milk. "Theysaid in school today that anyone can become president.That might be true, but you have to have connections. Youhave to have lots of money. Lots of it. Advertising,campaigning, it all costs money. Ill have to start on thelocal level first. Were going to have to move into a muchnicer neighborhood. I have some properties already on theshort list." He trails off and thinks to himself anddreams of bigger and better things. Pike goes to the small living room and sits down onthe old, run-down couch. What is causing them to act sostrangely? What is driving them to recklessness here onthis planet when they have been so methodical and carefulelsewhere? And then he begins to wonder about himself. What doeshe lack that Creo and Billy possess? Why isnt he himselfdriven to succeed like his two colleagues? He pulls a metal case out of the coffee table drawer.He sets it on the coffee table. He flicks open the twolatches on either side but doesnt open the case. KillSimmons? No. Hell go over and talk to him first. "A dictionary." Pike says suddenly. He goes backinto the kitchen. "Do we have a dictionary?" Pike asks Billy. Hedoubts they do. The Pike family doesnt seem very bookish. "In Creos room." Billy says. "What for?" "Just looking something up." "Youre still going to take care of the Simmonsproblem?" Billy says absently. "May I remind you," Pike says, bristling, "that I amin command here?" "Im sorry sir." Billy says, but Pike doubts hissincerity. 11
  12. 12. "And dont you forget it young man." He finds the dictionary in Creos room, on a smallbookshelf next to the bed. The bedroom is littered withdiscarded clothes and stuffed animals. A green gown isdraped over the back of her vanity chair. The vanity, asmall white table with a mirror, is littered with makeup.A little black dress and Capri pants are draped over thebed, which has been carefully made. Pairs of shoes arelined up neatly in rows of six in the closet. Posters ofshirtless young men adorn the walls. The room smells ofperfume. Pike grabs the dictionary and flees. When he goes back downstairs, Billy isnt at thetable. Billy has been leaving in the evenings, and notcoming back until dawn. For some reason, he wont saywhere he is going. Pike worries that hell hurt someone.Billy has no love for the creatures of this world, and thisworries Pike. His cavalier attitude toward killing Simmons- Simmons! Pike rushes to the tiny living room, pokes his headaround the corner, and finds Billy sitting on the couch,holding the weapon. "What are you doing?" "What I know you cant." Billy says. He stands up,all four feet of him. Pike stands in the doorway. "Let me through Pike. You know the rules." "Just let me talk to him." Pike says. "Im positiveno one will believe him if he says anything." "We cant be sure of that." Billy says. "Even if noone believes him, hes still a threat. Maybe hell try totake matters into his own hands. These primates arexenophobes. Its in their genetic makeup. You know wecant let him run free now that he knows." "There must be some other way," Pike says. "I orderyou to store that weapon." The guns white light pulses intime with Billys pulse. So far Billy has kept it pointedat the floor. The pulsing quickens slightly. "Let me through," Billy says. "Youll attract police attention." Pike puts hishands on his hips. "This thing doesn’t leave a body," Billy says, holdingthe weapon up. "Not a trace." "I said no," Pike says. "I should have been given command of this mission."Billy says. "Instead, Ive been cast as the offspring of asub-par human," he points a finger at Pike, "who was on thepublic dole until we showed up." 12
  13. 13. "I told you its better to choose a host family thatdoesnt have a lot of connections." Pike said. "I dont agree with you." Billy says. "We shouldhave taken wealthy hosts. Wealthy people can be snotty andmoody and no one questions it. Rich people have bigestates with plenty of room and plenty of privacy." "Still," Pike says, "people would catch on." "So what?" Billy says. He puts the weapon back inthe metal case. Pike releases a breath hes been holding. Billy says, "Nobody pushes rich people around. Plus,the interactions Ive had at school indicate that theseapes hardly know themselves, much less each other. Everyhuman is wrapped up in themselves; they barely have time tonotice others." "Are you through?" Pike asks. "I suppose." Billy says. "I just wish you would havethought this through before you stranded us with this loserfamily. Its going to take years to get where we need tobe." "And wheres that?" Pike asks. Billy, little "seven-year-old" Billy, looks up at Pikelike hes lost his wits. "You just dont get it do you?Money talks on this planet. Bullshit, yours in particular,walks." Pike watches his diminutive colleague stalk out of theroom. He hears the refrigerator door open. He hears Billydrink milk from the carton. The refrigerator door closesand then the back screen door opens with a squeak andcloses with a bang. Pike picks up the weapon, tucks it in his belt, coversit with his shirt, and goes next door. * * * Pike pushes the round, lit doorbell button twicebefore he hears heavy footsteps inside. The door opens andVernons son, William, peers out. "Is your father home?" Pike says. He hopes hes not. "Hes bowling." William says. He is seventeen, witha shock of red hair, and a baseball cap on backwards. Hewears an avocado green Abercrombie & Fitch tee shirt, baggyshorts, and flip-flops. He looks Pike up and down. "Youdont look like no alien." "Is that what he told you?" "He was probably drunk." William says. "Theres nosuch thing." 13
  14. 14. "There certainly isnt." Pike says. "The Bowl-A-Ramaon Plainfield?" "Yea." Outside, Pike considers it for a long time. Now hecant eliminate Simmons without also eliminating the son.Pike would come under suspicion immediately. No, he has toconvince the team that killing the Simmons is not anoption. * * * Pike calls a meeting. Its time to lay down someground rules. Getting them both at the house at the sametime takes some scheduling, since Creo isnt home veryoften, and Billy is busy buying, selling, making deals andhustling. "We cant kill Simmons, and we wont." Pike says. "Imade a mistake, but now his son knows something is goingon. Im not killing them both. If they were going toreport us, they would have by now." "Pike," Creo says. "If I didnt know better, Id sayyou’ve got some of your hosts leftover humanity inside."Shes no longer a teenage girl. Shes a mature woman.Somehow, shes managed to accelerate the maturationprocess. Pike notices that Billy has grown at least a foot, andput on several pounds, all of it muscle. They are nowdangerous. Creo is a predator, and Billy is depraved. "Are you forgetting why were here?" Billy asks. "Were the scouting party." Pike says. "But I makethe decisions here. Im going to report that this placeisnt right for colonization." "Thats ridiculous." Creo says. She takes a steptoward him. "You cant do that. This is perfect." "We wont let you." Billy says. "Youve lost yourmind. Theres been some sort of transference from yourhosts psyche. Youre not thinking clearly." Pike raises his voice for the first time since comingto the planet. "Im in charge here!" It isnt veryconvincing. Billy laughs. "You think. Youve done nothing topromote our situation here. Creo has made the connections.Ive made the money. Youve done nothing except put us atrisk of being discovered. You have failed as a leader." Creo is silent. Her arms are crossed. Her eyes areshining with enjoyment as she nods her head in agreementwith what Billy is saying. 14
  15. 15. Pike has lost them. He realizes this as they file outof the room without waiting to be dismissed. It is amutiny. He wont last the week if he remains. * * * William Scott Pike wakes the next morning, biting backa scream. The parasite has left him. He has been gone fora long time. He has the vague notion that he has been in adeep hypnotic state for a long, long time. There is searing pain from the hole in the small ofhis back. An animal noise escapes him. He sucks in air,his face squeezed in pain, his fists clenched. "It will heal." A voice says in his head. "Ibandaged it the best I could." He lifts his head from his pillow. At first hedoesnt believe his eyes. Hes hallucinating. He closesthem, opens them, and then shakes his head; he tries todrive the hallucination away. The thing doesnt disappear:An octopus, or jellyfish (Pike isnt sure), floats in theair three feet off the ground. It is translucent andrubbery, with four disturbingly human eyes in its centralmass that watch him from slightly bulged sockets. The pain in his back makes it impossible to do what hewants, which is throw something at it, try to make it tothe door, and run. "Dont be afraid." The thing says. "Your wound willheal." "What the hell are you?" William Pike demands, but heknows what it is. "You would call me a parasite," the thing says. Thevoice is high-pitched and laborious, as if forming thewords is difficult. The sound doesnt travel through theair, but forms in his head. "Weve had quite a symbioticrelationship, you and I." "Under my arms," William Pike says. He looks at hisleft ribcage. Red marks are still there, where the thinghad gripped him. He feels the marks with his right hand.The skin is rough and almost shredded. "You were holdingon back there." "Yes." The thing says. "Flattened against your back,fused to your spine." William Pike isnt the same man he was months ago. Heis thinking clearly, He is in shape. He is focused. Thecreature has blended with him. It has left something ofitself behind, nestled within his psyche. 15
  16. 16. The thing says, "I figured out the reason our peoplecan never colonize your planet. I had to search yourdictionary for the word, but I found it." What is this thing talking about? William Pikewonders. Some chemical? Something in the atmosphere?When the creature doesnt continue, "What?" William Pike asks. "Ambition." The thing says, and moves a tentacle, asif to make some kind of gesture. "It is your ingrainedambition that would tear our people apart. It is what hastorn my crew apart. Blind, senseless ambition." "And thats it?" "It is part of what makes you human. There is no wayto combat it. Your people would never submit to ourcontrol." "Did it affect you?" "No," the thing said. It expanded slightly and thenreturned to a smaller size, breathing. "I think by thetime I reached you, your will had already been broken.Perhaps as you age, you lose your ambition. Maybe you callit wisdom." "What about my son and daughter?" "It is early." The alien says. "Youll find themboth sleeping on their stomachs. Its the only way we cansleep with any comfort. I suggest using a spatula. Shouldcome right off." "Then what?" The floating mass begins to fade. "The weapon is onthe kitchen counter." 16