"A Single Step" (June 2012 Meet the Neighbors Challenge Entry)
“Zef!” Lily Sloane Cochrane yelled from their back yard as she saw the small craft spiraling downwards, threatening their home. It whistled as it went by. She coughed, sending her frail body into spasms from the effort. The one-word yell had been too much effort for her.
He wasn’t a spring chicken anymore in 2117, but Zefram Cochrane ran outside, shotgun in hand. He looked at the craft as the screen door slammed behind him and he felt, rather than saw, Lily’s presence beside him. She was panting a little with the effort of walking. “That doesn’t look Vulcan,” she said. She moved slower those days, sick with cancer and fading fast.
“No, it, uh, it doesn’t,” he said. He leaned over her to protect her as the craft, which was vaguely diamond-shaped, crashed next to their garden.
The impact was loud as the ground shook a little, and it was smoldering, but it wasn’t actively burning at least. He was about to run to investigate it – at least as fast as eighty-seven-year-old legs could go, but her imploring eyes held him back for the moment. “I should investigate,” he said.
“We could call Solkar,” she suggested. “He’d know what to do.”
“It’ll take too long,” Zefram said. He looked at her dark eyes. “You look tired. You should rest. You need to.”
“Nuh-uh,” she replied, “we don’t get an alien landing in the back yard without me getting to see.”
“If it’s dangerous, what do you expect me to do?”
“Listen, Old Man,” she said, “neither of us can move that fast anymore. So don’t give me anything about how you’re gonna be my white knight or anything.”
He was about to respond when there was a loud, alien screeching, squeaking sound, and it was coming from the direction of the wreck.
He began to walk over and she weakly followed him. He sighed – he didn’t want her there. Lung cancer was giving her breathing impairment. Everything she did was slower and getting even slower, it seemed. But he couldn’t argue with her. He could never argue with her.
They got to the crater that had been formed by the wreck. He pushed the bolt home on the shotgun. “Whoever you are,” he yelled, trying to sound as menacing as possible, “I got me a shotgun here and both barrels are filled. And I am not afraid to use any of this equipment! I’ll blow your fool head off!” Then he turned to her and, more quietly said, “If he’s even got a head.”
She laughed a little at that, and the laugh triggered a short coughing spell. “I’m all right,” she assured him. “Zef, let’s see what we got.”
“All right,” he said, “but if it’s bad, Lily, you promise me you’ll get back to the house and call on Solkar, all right? And the sheriff, too, I guess, although God knows what he could do.”
“Let’s us, let’s think positively,” Lily said, “Maybe it’ll be like when the Vulcans got to Earth in ’63. Maybe they’ll be nice and stuff.”
“That was fifty-four years ago. And you forgot those cybernetic guys – they weren’t so nice. The Enterprise was a help, but they are long gone from here. It’s just you and me, Sweets.”
“Yep, we’re a team. And I’m sorry I called ya old.” Another coughing fit.
There was another ungodly loud screeching, squeaking sound. Zefram Cochrane re-shouldered his shotgun. “I’m comin’ to getcha!” He rushed at the crater.
There was a rhombus-shaped hatch on the ship, and it seemed a bit bent. From within, someone or something was attempting to get it to open. But the sides were scraping something fierce. That was the screeching sound. “Should we help him, you think?” Lily asked.
“I dunno,” replied her husband, “either we’d be really nice to some great new friends or we’d be releasing the Apocalypse. Which do you think’ll happen?”
“I dunno. Wanna flip a coin? Heads for friends, tails for the Apocalypse?”
It was answered for them when the hatch was suddenly pushed open, perhaps by kicking. And that’s when they saw it.
The alien raised a head slowly and peered out. It was humanoid, with fur and triangular-shaped ears. If Lily didn’t know any better, she’d have sworn it was a cat. Except it was the size of a human. She went slack-jawed, as did Zef. The alien then wiped a bit at its face, and there was a little blood from a cut. The blood was an orangey-red, almost like tomato juice. It then leaned down; face disappearing from view, but a tail emerged instead. It waved a tiny bit as the alien, perhaps, rummaged around for something.
“Don’t be getting no weapons!” Zefram yelled. “I will defend what’s mine!”
The alien reemerged, carrying two things in its fluffy hands. One was a small handheld device with a lit up display. The other was a kind of cage but, instead of metal bars, there were lights. Within the cage there was an animal that appeared to be a bit like a bat. The alien set the handheld down and brought the cage close to its own face, near the cut. It touched something under the cage and the lights went out, thereby freeing the bat. But the bat did not fly away. Instead, it alit onto the alien’s face and glowed a tiny bit as its feet made contact with the larger alien’s face. There was a small smell, almost like barbecue, or roasting meat, for just a second. The bat then obediently hopped back into its cage and the larger alien touched under the cage again. This apparently reactivated the light bars and the bat was, again, confined. A look at the alien’s face showed the purpose of the activity – the cut on its face, and its accompanying bit of tomato juice-like blood, were both gone.
The larger alien then picked up the handheld. Zefram and Lily just stared, unsure of its intentions. It hit a few switches with its fluffy hands and the device emitted a few chirps and whines. The alien then made a sweeping motion with its hand. “What does that mean?” Lily asked. “Is it waving? Are you waving at us?”
Zefram tried to make the Vulcan salute. He remembered that from when Solkar had first come to Bozeman, but he could never get his fingers to fully cooperate. He realized he still had the shotgun in his hands and took the shells out and pocketed them, and then placed the weapon on the ground. “See? I’m not armed anymore. I’m sorry. I just didn’t want to be, you know, you can never be too careful.”
The alien looked at them a bit and adjusted something on the handheld, and then spoke, its voice projected through the device and, evidently, translated by it. “I am M’Roan. I apologize for having crashed here. I can pay you compensation. Do you take standard credits?”
“Huh?” Lily asked. “What are standard credits?”
“May I exit my ship?”
“Sure,” Zefram said, “bring your, uh, pet with you, okay?”
“Ah, the Derellian bat,” said M’Roan, “it makes an enzyme that’s very useful for treating and preventing infections.”
“An idea,” Zefram said, “can it, uh, can it cure bigger things?”
“No, bigger diseases,” Zefram said, “My wife is ill.”
“I do not know,” M’Roan said, “Perhaps we will try.”
“That would be more than enough payment,” said Zef. He turned to Lily. “Would you allow that thing to try to kick out your lung cancer?”
“Um, okay, I guess,” she said.
He went over and helped M’Roan out of the wreck. The alien was as furry as he had seemed to be from a distance. He brought the cage over. “Where is the trouble?”
“Here,” Lily said, pointing to her own chest. The exertion made her cough. “I, I need to sit down.”
They were all still outside, and it was getting a little dark. “Come into our home,” Zef said, “I’m Zefram Cochrane. My wife’s name is Lily.”
“Vulcans have been here for a while. We, my species, we are called Caitians,” M’Roan explained as they walked. He noticed that Zefram was helping Lily along. She was suddenly very tired, it seemed. “Have you been ill very long?”
“Long enough,” Lily said. “I’d be all right if I wasn’t so damned tired all the time.”
They got into the modest house. Post-World War III Alpha Centauri Colony homes weren’t exactly palatial. They went into the kitchen. “What is the purpose of this room?” asked M’Roan.
“We prepare and eat food here,” Lily said.
“There is an aroma of meat. And some vegetables, perhaps from a few days ago,” M’Roan said, “and there is a water source as well.” He set the cage on the table.
“Can we try it now?” Zef asked.
“Yes,” said M’Roan, “Lily, come closer and I will assist you.” He clicked something on the handheld and the translation stopped. He spoke to the bat a bit, a kind of guttural sound, almost like rolling a Spanish R. The bat squealed a bit. It was difficult to tell whether it was commands or conversation or even negotiations. M’Roan clicked on the handheld again and the translation returned. “The bat is ready.”
Lily sat there as the cage was brought nearby. M’Roan reached underneath the cage and deactivated the light bars again. The bat hopped out and onto her chest. Its feet glowed as it danced a bit on her body, a ticklish sensation. But the glow was a different color than it had been when it was treating M’Roan. The bat then hopped back into its cage and the bars were reactivated.
“Feel any different?” asked Zef.
“No,” she said, disappointed. “Maybe it takes longer.” She coughed again.
“If you have a physician, he or she could tell, yes?” asked the Caitian.
“Yeah, but there aren’t a lotta doctors around here. We’re kilometers away from the closest town. This is what we get for retiring in the middle o’ nowhere,” Zefram said.
“If it has not worked, I am sorry. But I would still wish to repay you in some fashion.”
“Why did you come here? I mean, right here?” Lily asked before she started coughing again.
“We had heard that there was a First Contact with your species, maybe a half a century ago. I learned that it was nearby. It was – I do have the right person, yes?”
“What do you know about me?” asked Zef.
“Only that you made the first warp flight from a nearby system’s third planet,” stated M’Roan. “I admit I was curious.”
“Well, curiosity killed the cat,” Lily said. She smiled a little but then another wave of coughing started up.
“Let’s get you to bed,” Zef said, “Uh, make yourself at home, I guess,” he said to M’Roan.
The alien continued to sit at their kitchen table, tail turning and twitching, and it was tough to tell whether M’Roan had full control over it.
Zef helped Lily to bed. “Too much excitement for one day,” he said to her.
“So that guy is a fan?”
“I guess. I’ll get a swelled head if I don’t watch it. G’night, Princess.”
“G’night, Old Man.” They kissed and he turned out the light.
He went back to the kitchen. “How long did it take you to get here?”
M’Roan thought for a moment; he may have been silently performing a calculation. “It has taken me a few months by your reckoning. I stopped at Vulcan for a while, for provisions, and they told me of you. I admit I was just wandering a bit, without a plan or an agenda. When I learned that there was a species that had only recently attained Warp Drive, I had to come take a look. And you are building another ship, a much faster one, yes?”
“Yeah, there’s a guy named Henry Archer. He’s looking to build an engine capable of Warp Five. I dunno; I figure I’ll believe it when I see it.”
“My people have had Warp Drive for a few centuries. I do not know what I would say to the inventor. How far have you traveled?”
“Only within the Sol system and this system, and not too far,” Zef admitted. “And now,” he vaguely gestured in the direction of the bedroom, “well, I can’t go gallivanting around or anything.”
The translator took a moment, possibly with the word gallivanting. “Not everyone likes to travel.”
“True,” said Zef, “but at least now, I guess we kinda can. It’s funny. A little over a half a century ago, we thought we were alone in the universe. Or, at least, we didn’t have any proof otherwise. Now we know about you, and the Vulcans and the bat, too.”
“Well, the bat is only a little sentient,” M’Roan said, “but she does listen to commands and all. She is very useful to have on a long flight, when one is soloing, and so there is no physician.”
“And what about the people of, uh, is it called Derellia? What are they like? Do they even exist at all?” Zef asked.
M’Roan was about to answer him when they heard a loud gasp.
Zef got to the bedroom as quickly as he could. “Lily! What’s going on?” He flipped on the light switch.
She was laying there, very weak. “Gotta go, Old Man,” she whispered, “it’s time.”
“No!” He looked at the Caitian, who was standing in the doorway. “Your bat did this! Why didn’t you tell me it could do this?!”
“No,” Lily said softly, “don’t, don’t blame it. Don’t blame the bat or the cat.”
He knelt down at her bedside. “Tell me what to do, Princess.”
“Go see the stars, Old Man, and I’ll be waiting in some nebula, or something.”
“Gotta. Remember, second nebula on your right.” She gasped again and was gone.
It took several minutes for Zef to collect himself. “What did the bat do?”
“It was as we attempted. It is no killer. And neither am I. I did not come here in order to cause you pain or terminate a life. I came out of interest and maybe fascination. But it was not due to malevolence. Please, I hope you can find it in your heart to at least consider believing me.”
“She said I should go to see the stars. Aw, Man!” Zefram Cochrane crumpled onto the bed and cried for a while.
The Caitian tentatively came over. Quietly, the alien put a furry hand on the man’s shoulder. “I was curious and now I have seen far too deeply into your life. I am so sorry. But this is, in a way, how friends can be made, yes?”
That statement made Zef look up. “Do you still wanna pay me for crashing into my yard?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Then I got an idea.”
It took them a while – over a month when all was said and done – but they eventually got the little Caitian ship repaired. It was a matter of pounding on and straightening out the hatch, among other things, and working on the guidance system. There was even some help from Solkar, once he learned what needed to be done. Henry Archer came over too, one time, the day after he had brought his son, Jonathan, to meet Cochrane at the Warp Five Complex.
M’Roan, like a cat, mainly ate meat, but he had a fondness for ice cream that made Zefram smile just a little bit. They had become, despite the inauspicious beginning, friends.
Finally the ship was ready. “We can go now,” M’Roan said, “let us take off soon. I miss my world. Are you certain you wish to do this, Friend Zefram?”
“I’m positive. I’m tired and old. I may as well die in space. Will you, will you do me right, shoot me off, you know, at that second nebula on the right?”
“Absolutely. And who knows what surprises are out there, waiting for you?” The Caitian got into the ship and Zefram handed him the little cage. The bat danced and hopped in excitement. “She is as taken with the stars as I am, I believe.”
“Let’s go,” Zefram Cochrane said as he got in and closed the repaired hatch, and the newly christened Jersey Lily took off for the second nebula on the right and parts unknown.
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