Writing in Public: Story 4 (Novella), Chapter 13
Though the aliens lived nearby, they interacted with humans and other alien races in a town called Sawyerstown. It was supposed to be named after the founder, though Hope wondered if the one word name had originated as a typo.
This time, one of Mel’s Marines drove the jeep, following the road marked by the barrels. Hope made sure she was buckled in so she wouldn’t fall out and dozed, despite the roar of the engine, the belching exhaust, and the non-stop bouncing.
The sun was already dipping low in the sky by the time they arrived at Sawyerstown. It was like what she had seen on the planets where human merchants were active. It reminded Hope of a town that might have been built for the California Gold Rush miners in 1849. The buildings were simply constructed out of wood. Stores mostly…she saw a place for booze, a barbershop, and a message drop stand. The one that caught her eye was one labeled, “Fabric Scraps.”
The aliens were here, too, lounging out in front of a store front labeled “Good Food,” which, from the displays in the window looked like neither. But Hope had a chance to watch the aliens longer.
This pair was having a leisurely conversation, their sensor tentacles languid.
“Watching the people go by,” Jian remarked.
“How do you communicate with them?” Hope asked.
“We have translators in town,” Mel said.
“They translate the tastes?” Brooks asked.
“No. They know the written language and use a chalkboard.”
Despite the heat, Hope shivered. Maybe that was the reason the ghost hadn’t communicated with her. While ghost was the universal translator, even she had her limits if the ghost did not have a language that she could hear.
“It’ll be a few minutes while I find the pair we’ve been negotiating with,” Mel said. “You want to have a look around?”
Hope glanced at Brooks, who shrugged. There wasn’t that much to see.
She wanted to have a look at the fabric store anyway. Why sell scraps of fabric? Patches for clothes maybe? But she didn’t think there would be enough business to make a profit.
“I’ll go with you,” Brooks said.
Hope worked her way out of the jeep without falling on her face. Bully for her! But she was still dragging her feet in the dirt street, kicking up dust that made her cough.
The fabric scrap store had strange symbols painted on the windows. The symbols looked like Egyptian hieroglyphs. One of the symbols was three squiggly lines.
A bell jangled as Hope and Brooks entered. The store wasn’t any cooler than outside, though a large standing fan was creating a breeze. The store had a thrift shop smell to it.
It took a moment for Hope’s eyes to adjust to the dimmer room. The store was simple in design: Tables lined up in rows and about the most ugly scraps of cloth on the tossed on top. Hope’s eyes smarted just looking at some of the colors. Who paired yellow and red together?
A man stood at the counter in the back. An old style manual cash register sat on the counter. The man had white hair and black eye brows, which looked very strange together. He wore a loose-fitting plaid shirt and plain suspenders to hold up his pants.
“Lost?” he inquired pleasantly. “We don’t get many humans in here.”
“This is a store for the aliens?” Brooks asked.
“Yes.” The shopkeeper pointed at the squiggly lines. “Good tastes.”
It certainly looked…well, odd. Hope picked up one of the scraps of cloth. It was a ghastly pattern with hot pink stripes and green eyeballs. Who came up with this? She wanted to ask why he sold these but that would be terribly insulting. And she definitely didn’t want to ask the real question that popped into her head: Did the aliens eat the scraps?
The storekeeper must have gotten that question a million times, because he said, “You can ask. I don’t mind.”
Still, Hope didn’t want to be rude, so she asked, “What is all this? Are the aliens quilting?”
The storekeeper laughed, making his face light up. “It’s the taste of the scraps. The aliens have parties and pass them around.”
Hope had a picture of aliens sitting on a sofa passing around Tupperware. Too weird.
“Do they have to be so…” Brooks broke off, because there really wasn’t a word that wouldn’t be insulting.
The storekeeper came from around the counter to pick up a print that looked like it must be on drugs. “I tried the more expensive prints. Lovely, pleasing fabrics for humans. The aliens wouldn’t touch it. It’s something in the dye patterns. I’m Orson, by the way.”
“I’m Hope. We’re with the GALCOM group helping out the scientists. How long have you been here?
“Twenty years now,” Orson said. He seemed glad to talk with humans. “I had a dry goods store originally. Thought I could get rich on a frontier planet. There was more trade then. We were on the main trade route until GALCOM added Einara 5 and then everyone went there.”
His voice dipped with discouragement.
“Have you ever thought of leaving?” Brooks asked.
“Sometimes.” Wistful now. “I’m so far away the rest of the world has gone by.”
Hope grinned. “Or is waiting for you.”
He beamed. “Thank you.”
“Would you mind answering some questions about the aliens, being as you’ve been around them for a while? It’s just I find the touching thing kind of creepy.”
Orson went to the table and began folding the scraps. “I also do the scraps so they won’t touch me as much. They aren’t supposed to be offended if you turn it down, but it’s like they—”
Before he finished what he was saying, the bell jangled again. Two aliens entered, their taste tentacles a staccato of motion. They headed, not for the tables with the fabric, but to Hope and Brooks. The one on the left cocked its head and raised a tentacle.
Brooks shook his head and gave the no sign, moving in front of Hope. He shifted just enough so that his Devil Blaster hanging on his belt was in clear view.
Tentacles zoomed back and forth again. Then the aliens seemed to shrug and moved among the tables.
Orson went behind the counter. He’d gone from smiling to all business.
Hope leaned in close, dropping her voice to a whisper. “You need to leave here. I saw the change when they came in. It’s not good for you.”
Orson nodded, but his eyes were on the aliens.
Hope and Brooks headed for the door. As Hope reached it, a ghost appeared in front of her. So close that she jumped back in pure reflex, gasping.
A tentacle hit the empty air in front of her.
If Hope used profanity, she would find some choice words now. Oh, yeah.