Robert Nowall

Two Sides to Every Story, by Robert Nowall
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TWO SIDES TO EVERY STORY

 

by

 

Robert Nowall

 

 

 

 

            When the little blue alien creature came into the Cafe during the graveyard shift, it didn't seem like a world-shaking event.  The Cafe served all kinds.

            Once the Cafe was a hole-in-the-wall stop on a mainstreet.  It prospered there for a generation or two, till the people relocated to the suburbs and the interstate highways.  So the Cafe relocated, to a stand-alone building on a nearby interstate exit.  It prospered again, for a few more generations.  Then when there were no more cars and the interstates were reduced to crumbling concrete strips, the Cafe followed the people again.

            Now it occupied a spot just off the main concourse of a Hive, just off one of the connectors to the starport.  People of all kinds packed in tight and traveled with a few steps and slides to where they wanted to go.  Now they catered to any carbon-based intelligent life that came in through the big glass door.

            The layout stayed the same.  The counter, with stools, stayed right inside the door; the kitchen behind it; to one side, some booths and tables.  Though the gas grills were replaced by electric, the fresh and real food by synthetics, the paper notepads by handheld electronics, the gun and baseball bats below the counter replaced by knockout gas and tanglefoot controls, a certain old-fashioned air lingered

            The Cafe, in this life, never closed.  Most of the business came during the day, in the rushes around breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  But enough people of all kinds dropped in for meals at odd hours, enough to make it worthwhile keeping minimum staff at night.

            The night shift, nine to six, came down to three.  Some overlap on either busier end, but those three handled it.  It was a good job, and the people tended to stick around without turnover.

            At the moment, the three, all human, were Cook-the-Cook and Waitress-the-Waitress, two younger types, plus the busboy and dishwasher, an older man picking up a place to stay and some extra income in retirement.  Cook and Waitress called him "Grandfather," though he wasn't related to either of them.

            One night, Waitress asked Cook, "Why does Grandfather works here?"  They stood in the kitchen, looking to the left of the counter, towards the booths and tables.  Grandfather bussed a booth, vacated by a couple of travelers who stopped for a meal between just getting in and moving on.

            "You have ideas?" Cook asked.

            "Look at him."   She pointed.  They watched as Grandfather picked up some glasses and put them in his container.  One of the glasses had lipstick on the rim.

            Waitress went on.  "I can't figure out why someone who's done what he did would do what he's doing."

            "What's he done?" Cook asked.

            "Exunef," Waitress said.  They were both out on the counter side of the Cafe.  She stood in front of Cook and crossed her arms.

            Cook shook his head.  "I don't get it."

            "U-N-E-F," Waitress said again, spelling each letter out.  "He was an explorer."

            "Grandfather told you?"

            She shook her head.  "Nobody told me.  I figured it out.  I---"

            Just then the automatic door opened and closed.  Waitress and Cook both looked.  It wasn't until it climbed up onto a stool and sat at the counter that they saw what it was.  Blue, skinny at the top, pear-shaped at the bottom, four short legs, two tiny arms, a small head with two large blue eyes on either side.  It wore no clothes, but had a belt with a small pouch around where its waist would be, if it had a waist.

            Cook nudged Waitress with his elbow.  Waitress jumped and went over to the counter.  Cook nodded and went to the kitchen through the swing door.

            Waitress went up to the creature, and pulled her pad and pencil from her apron pocket.  They weren't "pencil" and "paper," but they did the trick.  "May I help you?" she asked, remembering not to say "sir" or "madam;" alien species sometimes touchy about gender misidentification.

            The creature looked at the countertop, at the ketchup and mustard bottles lined up in a row with salt and pepper shakers and the napkin dispenser.  From between the dispenser and the ketchup bottle, it pulled a single stiff plastic-laminated sheet, the menu.  The creature looked it over.  "Yes," it said, after a second.  Its voice was deep and sounded male.  It turned its head and eyes toward Waitress.  "I'll have a hamburger with french fries."

            "Anything on that?"
            "No, ma'am."

            "And would you like anything to drink?"

            "No."
            It turned its eyes back to the menu.  "Oh, uh, do you have lemonade?"

            Waitress glanced over the wall, at the drink dispensers.  A large inverted bottle of yellow liquid percolated.  "Yes, yes we have."

            "Lemonade, then."  It nodded its small head and continued to focus its eyes on the rest of the menu.  Waitress wrote the order down; it appeared on a screen in the kitchen for Cook to read.  But Cook, listening, already knew.  He slapped a burger patty on the grill.  The grill detected the raw burger and heated up in an instant.  The patty began to smoke and sizzle.

            Waitress watched him, then leaned back through the open space between them.  "Psst!"  When she had Cook's attention, she whispered, "I haven't seen anything like that before."

            "Something new every day," Cook replied.  He lifted the patty with a spatula, and placed it on a bun already on a plate.  "What do you make of it?"

            "For something I've never seen before, it speaks English well.  A little odd, but well."

            "Ah-hm!" Cook coughed, and tapped the plate with his spatula.  It rang with a delicate sound, metal against china.  He scooped up some fries and put them on the plate next to the burger.  Waitress took the plate and put it in front of the creature.

            The creature looked up, and said, "Thank you.  Er...my lemonade?"

            "Oh, sorry," she said, and hurried over to the drink dispensers.  The lemonade was ready, a glass of yellow liquid.  She put a straw in it, then put the glass down next to the plate.

            "Thank you," the creature said, and with its two small arms picked up the hamburger and began to eat.  It reached for no condiments, it just ate the hamburger plain.  It took a bite, then a sip of lemonade, then another bite, then another sip.  It did not seem to chew.

            Cook and Waitress watched the creature eat from where they stood on either side of the back counter.  They spoke in low and soft voices.  Waitress said, "He sounds like Grandfather."

            "Yeah, that's it.  And 'hamburger' and 'french fries.'"  He shook his head.  "I've never heard anybody not Grandfather's age say that."

            "It's printed that way on the menu," Waitress said.

            "But nobody says it.  It's uh, uh..."  He struggled for a word, his lips tight, then said, "Archaic, that's it.  Archaic."

            "Mmm."  Waitress looked at the creature, then said, "Maybe Grandfather knows where it came from."

            Waitress and Cook looked towards the tables and booths.  There was the booth Grandfather cleaned.  Sitting on the booth table was the big rectangular plastic container Grandfather put the dirty dishes and glasses and silverware in.

            But there was no sign of Grandfather .

            Waitress and Cook looked at each other, then at the tables and booths again, then at each other.  Then they turned their heads to look at the creature.

            The creature finished the last of its hamburger.  For a creature of its size it ate with surprising speed.  It slipped the palm of one of its small hands onto the PAY tablet embedded in the countertop.  The tablet flashed green.

            Then from out of its satchel-pouch, it pulled a single bill.  It put the bill flat on the counter.  "Thank you," it said.  "That was delicious."  Then it climbed down from the stool.  "I will be back tomorrow night," it added, as it turned and waddled to the door.

            Waitress picked up the bill and looked at it.  It was a fifty, about ten percent of the bill.  Not a lot of printed cash changed hands in the Cafe; most tipped with the PAY tablet.  She handed the bill to Cook, who looked at it and handed it back.  Waitress stuffed the bill in her pocket.

            The two of them watched the creature go out the door.  It turned and walked down the passage.  When it was out of sight, Waitress turned to Cook.  "Where's Grandfather?" she asked.

            Cook looked back into the kitchen.  "He didn't come back in here."

            "He didn't go out the front."

            Cook looked at the door in the back, that led to the Cafe living quarters.  "Don't think it's been opened."

            "So where did he go?"

            Cook thought for a moment, furrowing his brow.  "The restrooms?"

            Waitress and Cook stepped from the counter to the booth and table area, Waitress past the counter, Cook through the swinging doors.  There were two restrooms, once male and female but long since unisexed, what with so many different species of uncertain gender wandering through.

            The doors swung inward.  The door for the left-side restroom was open a crack.  In a split second it opened wide and Grandfather emerged.  He said, "Sorry.  I had to go."  Then he went back to his rectangular plastic container at the booth.

            Cook and Waitress watched as Grandfather picked up the rest of the plates and utensils and put them in the container, then wiped down the table top with a damp cloth.  He whistled a tuneless tune through his teeth.  Once finished at the table, he picked up the container, and carried it through the swinging door into the kitchen.  In a moment, the faint noise of splashes came out.

            Cook and Waitress looked at each other again.  But the front door slid open.  Two customers, human, a man and a woman, regulars both, came in, nodded to Cook and Waitress where they stood, then took seats at the booth farthest from the door.  Cook and Waitress nodded back. 

            Cook shrugged and went back to the kitchen.  Waitress handled the customers.  There was no time for anything more.

#

            The next night, about the same time of night, the creature waddled in again.  Things were normal before that.  Waitress handled the orders and Cook did the cooking---but they both kept their eyes on Grandfather.  He carried on as always, but spoke little, and all about the job.  Waitress tried out a couple of hints, but Grandfather didn't pick up on them.

            Grandfather was in the back, washing dishes, when he caught sight of the creature in the video monitor.  He didn't run, but leaned down and lowered his head.

            The creature took the same stool.  It waved one of its arms in an almost-human gesture as Waitress approached.  "No need for a menu," it said.  "I will have the hamburger and french fries again."

            "With lemonade?"

            "Yes, thank you for remembering."

            As the order cooked, and Waitress fetched the lemonade glass, the creature fixed its multiple eyes on Waitress.  When Waitress put the lemonade down, the creature spoke.  "I'm looking for someone," it said.  "I was told he might be here."

            "A lot of people come in here," Waitress said.

            "This is a man, a human."  It reached into its pouch / satchel and pulled out a small printed photo.  It slid the photo across the countertop, picture up.

            The photo was printed on an old-fashioned index card, and the card was old enough to have turned from white to yellow.  And the photo itself was black-and-white.  Waitress looked a it.  The photo was of a young man with a frown on his face.  The background seemed to be forest or jungle.

            "This was taken some time ago," the creature said.  "But it is all I have."

            "Do you have a name to go with the face?" Waitress asked.

            "I knew him many years ago as Jack-Scott-Sheffield."  The creature spoke the name as if the separate components all ran together.  "When I knew him, he served with the United Nations Exploratory Force."

            It was hard to say...but, to Waitress, the young man in the photo looked like the old man who washed dishes.  Waitress glanced at Cook.  Cook followed the conversation, and leaned forward on the back counter.

            They both looked back to Grandfather.  Grandfather still washed dishes, head bent over---but he raised his head enough to shake it.  No.

            Waitress turned back to the creature.  "I don't know."  She pushed the picture back.  The creature took the picture and put it back in its pouch.

            The burger and fries were ready then.  Waitress put the plate in front of the creature.  It made a gesture with its tiny head that looked like a nod, and began to eat.

            Cook nodded to Waitress, who nodded back.  Cook stepped back from the counter, to the sink where Grandfather washed dishes.  He could still see the creature, eating with a calm air.  "Grandfather---" he began.

            "Shh!" Grandfather shot back, and ducked down further.  "Not while it's here!"

            Cook looked at him, shrugged, and looked ahead to Waitress.  Waitress shook her head, and looked down at the creature.  Humans and other intelligent species often disliked being watched while eating, but if this creature cared, it kept it to itself.  When it finished, it said, "Thank you.  I will be back tomorrow night."

            After paying with a palm print, it slipped another bill across the counter.  Waitress took it---another fifty.  "Thank you again, ma'am," it said, then slipped down from the counter and stool and walked away.  The automatic doors slid aside for it as it passed through.
            When it was long gone, and no other customers came in, Waitress went back into the kitchen and stood behind Granfather.  Grandfather still hunched over the sink, scrubbing encrusted gunk off a large pan, arms deep in the water.  He pretended not to notice them.

            But after some time, he lifted his head a little and looked at Waitress.  Waitress asked, "Well?"

            "Er...well, what?"

            "That...alien creature," Cook said.  "You know him, don't you?"

            Grandfather sagged a little and stopped scrubbing, then straightened up.  "No I don't, never saw him before...gotta go."  He stepped back from the sink fast enough to splash water onto the floor---Waitress and Cook stepped back.

            Grandfather pulled off his rubber washing apron in one quick tug as he moved, and hung it up on the pegs with the others by the back door.  "Time off," he said.  "Personal day."  Then he was out the back door before either of Cook or Waitress could think of anything to say.

            As the door slid shut, Cook said, "I can double up on dishes."

            "We'll wake someone if it does."  Waitress grimaced.  "Why do you think Grandfather got so...so...weird when that thing came in?"

            Cook shrugged.  "Should we find out?"

#

            The dorm that housed workers of the Cafe lay above the Cafe, several stories of semi-private room with attached lounges.  Most doubled up in rooms not much bigger than the space it took to lie down in.  Showers and toilets were communal.  The whole dorm smelled of oil and steel and cooking smells.

            The night shift area consisted of two rooms and a lounge between them; the bathroom was down the hall.  Grandfather lived alone in one room while Cook and Waitress shared the other. 

            Grandfather was not in his room when Cook and Waitress got there.

            Their room came with two cots and a table between them.  Most often they spent their off-time cuddling together on one cot, but now Cook sat crosslegged on one cot and hunched over a tiny computer pad on his lap, while Waitress sat on the edge of the other cot.  The computer pad was their prize possession, their joint possession, except for the clothes on their backs.

            Cook searched for the creature in the standard databases, but came up empty---everything was too tall, too short, too fat, too thin, the wrong color, the wrong stripes or spots, too many hands or feet.

            While Cook searched other sources, his body drenched in sweat even though he stripped down to his underwear, Waitress watched and waited while wrapped in a bathrobe.  She tried to keep awake, but her head nodded when Cook leaned over and nudged her.  "Take a look at this one."

            He handed the computer to her.  She squinted at the tiny screen.  The picture showed an alien that looked something like the creature, with writing too small on the screen to read.  "Well," she said, "the alien here is striped blue-and-white, but the one in the Cafe was blue, bluish...something like that."

            "It lists other colors," Cook said, "blue among them."

            "The head---"

            "It's a drawing, not a picture."

            Waitress hummed without a tune, then said, "Maybe.  Where's the picture from?"

            Cook grinned.  "I played a hunch.  I looked in old UNEF records.  See the notes?"

            Waitress touched the screen.  The picture expanded and she moved it so the writing below the picture was readable.  She read the caption aloud.  " 'Native, Sheridan's Planet.  High intelligence.' "  She shrugged.  "I've never heard of it."

            "See the headings?"  Cook pointed.

            She read again.  " 'Sheridan's Planet Expedition, United Nations Exploration Force.' "

            "And below that?"

            She looked again.  "Oh.  'Quarantined.' "

            Still grinning, Cook said, "I looked up Sheridan's Planet in the regular database.  The quarantine was lifted two years ago.  But nothing says why, not here, not there, nothing."

            "Hmm."  Waitress frowned.  "Grandfather must know what the quarantine was for.  Maybe he's worried."

            Cook let his grin lapse.  "But what would worry him and not the doctors?"

            Waitress didn't answer.  She touched the screen and put the full picture back up.  "Is this all there is?"

            "All I could find.  There must be more somewhere."  Cook stretched a little, raising his arms over his head and letting them fall.  "A few drawings---no pictures, just drawings.  Some dry reports that say nothing.  A notice of quarantine.  Nothing about how and why."  He pointed.  "Nothing more on this species other than its existence."

            "Hmm."  Waitress manipulated the picture again, trying to look at all the writing.  "Is there a date?"

            "Comes to sixty-one years ago."  Cook grinned again.  "You always thought he was old UNEF.  I figure Grandfather would have been...in his twenties, I guess.  Just the right age.  Here."  He leaned forward.  "Let me bring up the report.  There are some names attached, the old-fashioned kind."

            Waitress shook her head.  "Even if he still knows his name, he never said it to me.  I wouldn't know who's who."  She read through the report.  "It says here they lost the captain and half the crew.  That must be why the planet was quarantined."

            "But it doesn't say how," Cook replied.  "Just that it's all classified."

            "And nothing in the main databases."  Waitress shrugged.  "I suppose we could ask."

            "How?"  Cook pointed with his thumb, over his shoulder.  He's not in his room."

            "He'll be here for his shift."

            Cook nodded.  "So he will."  He stretched again and yawned.  "I'm beat.  Must be almost twelve.  I don't know about you, but I've got to get to sleep before then.  Or try."  He leaned back on his cot, arms behind his head.

            Waitress nodded.  She switched the computer pad off and put it on the table between them.   Then she waved the lights off and put them in darkness.  They soon snored the day away.

#

            Coon and Waitress dealt with a dozen customers at the shift's start.  Grandfather wasn't there.  Once they cleared out, Cook checked messages on the Cafe computer.  "He quit," Cook said, and waved her over.  "Here."

            Waitress bent over beside him and read from the screen.  " 'Grandfather gave notice,' " she read aloud.  "'Replacement by Friday shift.  Make do till.' "  She stood up straight and said, "What do we do now?"

            "Today is Tuesday," Cook replied.  "Isn't it?"

            "A lot of dishes and plates."

            "I'll do what I can.  We'll leave some for the morning shift."

            Waitress grimaced, then said, "Right."  She moved to step away, then said, "Do you think he's gone?"

            "I don't know."  Cook shook his head.  "I didn't think to look and see if his stuff was still here."

            "What'll we do when his, er, alien friend shows up tonight?"

            "If it shows up."  Cook shrugged.  "Tell it the truth.  Grandfather doesn't work here anymore."

#

            At about the same time of night as before, the creature showed up.  It climbed up onto the same stool.  It ordered the same thing.  Again, the Cafe was empty.  Waitress took the order and wondered if it waited until the Cafe was empty.  Looking for an opening?  Was the Cafe being monitored?

            But after it finished its burger and fries and lemonade, it reached again into its pouch and pulled the same black-and-white photo out.  "I asked you last night if you knew this human," it said as it slid the photo across the countertop.

            Waitress leaned over and looked at the picture again, but didn't speak.

            The alien said, "I have reason to believe he works here."

            Waitress looked back at Cook.  Cook put down a spatula, and wiped his hands on his apron.   Then he walked round through the swinging door to stand next to Waitress.

            The creature looked at both of them, and said, "I believe you have something to tell me."

            "Well, yes, but we have some...questions, too."  Cook looked down, then looked into the alien's eyes.  "Why do you want to find Gr---find this human?"

            "You do know him?"  It leaned forward, then leaned back.  "It's a private matter.  I'll discuss it with him."

            Waitress asked, "You're not planning on---hurting him, are you?"

            The creature was silent for a long time.  Its four eyes closed and it looked as if it were asleep.  But it opened them again.  It said, "I don't understand what you mean by hurting.  I don't intend to harm him, if that's what you mean."  It hesitated, then added, "Not by the standards of my species."

            "But by the standards of our species?" Cook asked.

            "I, ah, do not know for sure.  It might indeed.  I pondered this question, long and hard, for many years."  It spread its limbs, hands on the counter.  A shrug?  "I must find him before I'm sure.  Maybe nothing will happen."

            The creature slid the picture back across the counter, and picked it up and put it back in its pouch.  "Well," it said, with more than a hint of a sigh, "if he's not here, he's not here."

            Cook said, "Up until last night, he worked here.  But he quit."

            "Oh?"  The creature perked up at that, rising to its full height.  "He must not have gotten far."  It held out a single hand.  "Thank you for your help."

            Cook looked at the creature, then at Waitress, then back at the creature.  He then held out his hand.

            "Don't let it touch you!" came a shout.  Cook and Waitress looked up.  The creature jerked and swiveled its eyes.  Grandfather was at the front door of the Cafe.  He wore an old ill-fitting suit, of a make from before the Hive was formed.  He wore a days' growth of silver beard on his face, and breathed heavy.

            The creature looked at him.  "Jack-Scott-Sheffield!" it said.

            Grandfather stepped back and picked up the tall coatrack next to the door---an ornamentation, from the days when the Cafe opened on the outside.  It was a heavy wood-and-brass thing, but Grandfather lifted it and swung hard, down on the stool where the creature sat.

            He missed.  The creature leapt from the stool to the counter, then onto the floor out among the tables and booths.

            Waitress screamed.

            Cook knew what to do.  Back of the counter there was a switch, sealed with a wire.  He threw the switch as Grandfather was about to swing the coatrack at the creature as it scurried across the floor.

            The tanglefoot field reached knee high and lasted less than a quarter second---much longer and higher and it would be lethal---but it was enough to trip both Grandfather and the creature.  The creature fell.  Grandfather lowered the coatrack but did not drop it.  Everyone froze.

            Cook stepped between the creature and Grandfather, and said, "I did not punch the police button, but with all this noise, they might be here soon."  As he spoke, Waitress moved to the counter, to the tanglefoot switch.  Cook went on.  "Grandfather, put that thing down.  And you can start to tell what is going on here."

            The creature said, "I didn't come here to bother anyone!"

            Grandfather lowered the coatrack till it touched the ground.  "That thing is dangerous!" he shouted.  "If you let it touch you, it'll absorb you into itself and kill you in the process!"

            "That won't happen!" the creature shouted back.

            "Then why are you here?"  He lifted the coatrack again.

            "You and I have unfinished business, Jack-Scott-Sheffield.  You know that."

            Grandfather stiffened.  "I wouldn't let you do it then and I won't now."  He raised the coatrack.  "And I won't let you do it to anyone else!"

            "All right, all right!" Cook said.  He grabbed the coatrack out of Grandfather's hands and put it on its base.  "Sit down, you two, over there!"  He pointed to a round table.

            After a hesitation, they both did, moving very slow.  Waitress stepped back out, next to Cook.  "What now?" she asked.

            "Lock the doors."

            Waitress started to say something else, but thought better of it.  She was pale and nervous.  She stepped over to the door.  It opened and closed once, before she touched the lock pad.  The door stayed closed.  All the transparent doors and windows opaqued.  Light came through but no one could see in.

            A sign, visible in reverse through the opaque on the other side of the door, burned CLOSED in a steady red glow.  After a second, Waitress touched the pad again.  Below CLOSED, in smaller type, the words PRIVATE MEETING appeared.

            "Nice touch," Cook said.

#

            They sat together at one of the big round tables in the middle of the Cafe floor.  The table was bare except for a napkin holder and some condiment bottles.  The creature and Grandfather sat almost opposite each other.  Cook and Waitress sat together, on one side.

            Rules permitted the night staff to close for thirty minutes in the middle of the night if they thought it necessary.  It was supposed to be a prevention technique, to spoil the place as an all-night hangout.

            After he explained that , Cook said, "But there could be other reasons, and this, for sure, looks like one."  He and Waitress looked at Grandfather, then the creature, then back at Grandfather.  "I think it's your turn, Grandfather."

            Grandfather coughed, and started.  "It's declassified now, so I can talk.  Sixty-two years ago, I was a junior lieutenant with the United Nations Exploration Force.  Six or seven years out, surveying several planets.:

            "The expedition ended after two years," the creature said.  "It was aborted after Sheridan's Planet."

            "I'm telling this," Grandfather said.  "Do you mind?"

            "We found out about Sheridan's Planet," Cook said.  "But we didn't find out much, just that it was quarantined and the quarantine was lifted."

            "I didn't know that until a few days ago," Grandfather said.  "But I can't figure out why."  He glared at the creature.  "It's still dangerous."

            "Not any more," the creature replied.  "We immunize against it.  We just opened relations.  I am with the diplomatic mission."

            Waitress asked, "Is finding Grandfather part of it?"

            "No, that's just me."

            After a moment or two of silence, Grandfather went on.  "Sheridan's Planet seemed like, well, not paradise, but a good and solid world, a good place to put your feet down on after a long trip.  But there were several intelligent native species.  That surprised us."  He smiled.  "We spent months there, laying groundwork, teaching and making friends."

            "Thank you," the creature said.

            "Well, we thought we were making friends."  At that, the creature glared at Grandfather but did not speak.  Grandfather said, "We found an explanation.  Among them were ones like, well, like this one.  And they were responsible for the intelligence of the others."

            "I can explain that," the creature said.  "We, in effect, merge with a, er, a specimen, a subject.  Our intelligence and memories carry over and the resulting, er, gestalt, is intelligent."

            Grandfather said, "We found they could merge with people---with humans."

            A silence fell among them.  After awhile, the creature said, "Some of us did not understand why the rest of you ran away."

            Grandfather said, with some heat, "We weren't going to stand by and let ourselves be taken over by some evil aliens!"

            The creature replied with equal heat, "We are not evil!  It is natural for us to do this."

            Cook grabbed the napkin holder and banged it on the table.  "Enough!" he said.  "Let me get this straight.  The expedition ship landed on Sheridan's Planet, and the resident smart species wanted to take over the bodies and minds of the humans of the expedition."

            "It is not a takeover!" the creature said.  "It is a merger, a glorious union of two minds and bodies becoming one.  It is a sacred rite, the happiest thing that can happen to one of us."

            "Hhmph!" Grandfather said, and leaned back, crossing his arms.  "We did not see it that way."

            "So what happened after that happened?" Waitress asked.

            The creature and Grandfather looked at each other.  Then Grandfather said, "The aliens merged with some of our crew.  It was obvious the men and women who went out weren't the same when they came back."

            "If you had talked to them instead of killing them---"

            "Wait, wait a minute," Cook said.  He turned to face Grandfather.  "You killed them?"

            The creature spoke before Grandfather could.  "They killed half their fellow crewmen, sixty-eight human men and women, including the expedition commander."

            "They weren't our fellow crewmen anymore!"

            "You made mistakes.  Some of those you killed did not merge."

            Cook banged the napkin holder gavel on the table again.  "Now, now," he said.  "So, after things went bad, what was left of the expedition got off Sheridan's Planet and arranged a quarantine."

            "Right."  Grandfather looked triumphant.  "When we submitted our report to HQ, they agreed."  He grimaced.  "We all went through courts-martial for mutiny.  We were also under quarantine ourselves, for over a year, in case these aliens possessed us without our knowledge.  It was detectable.  We were clean and cleared."

            "You had nothing to fear," the creature said.  It twitched its eyestalks.  "Once union takes place, nothing more can happen.  We breed as a species among ourselves.  And those who merge can breed within their own species without genetic effect."

            Grandfather grunted and turned towards Cook.  "After all was said and done, we were washed up in the UNEF.  I took a job with a freightline and worked on one ship after another until I retired."  He looked at the creature and spoke to it.  "So how did the quarantine get lifted?  And how did you get here?"

            The creature put its tiny hands on the table.  "You might be aware that eight crewmen escaped your slaughter and were with us when you left."

            "Right.  The chief medical officer escaped.  We didn't pursue.  And a five-person biology team never returned."

            "You forgot to mention two from engineering, who slipped out."  The creature paused for a second, then went on.  "Five men, three women."  Was that a smile on the creature's face?  "As of my departure from our planet, they produced five hundred and thirteen descendants."

            "What?  Impossible!"  Grandfather put his hands on the table.  "More people for you to take over?"

            "After the initial incident," the creature replied, "we merged with no more humans."  Did irritation creep into its voice?

            "Never mind that," Cook said.  "I'm sure it can be checked."

            "It can," the creature said.  "Everything I've said should be on your databases right now.  By the way, our planet is Grahoommerbung, not Sheridan's Planet."

            "Grahoomerbung!" Grandfather said.  "What is that supposed to mean?"

            "It means 'Home.'"

            After a moment, Waitress said, "All right.  Grahoomerbung, not Sheridan's Planet.  We can check.  But let's just hear your stories.  We know the quarantine was lifted.  How?  Why?"

            The creature stirred in its seat.  "Well, in addition to the people who escaped, much UNEF gear was abandoned in haste."  The creature looked at Grandfather, but Grandfather just glared back at it.  It went on.  "It took several years, but, with the gear, and the technical knowledge of the former crewmembers---"

            "The stolen technical knowledge," Grandfather said.

            The creature ignored him.  "We were able to get in touch with Earth, and the successor organizations to the UNEF in the Stellar Federal Union."

            Grandfather looked startled.  "I didn't know that."

            "I believe the matter was kept classified for several years.  We were able to tell our side of the story---we found the account they had was somewhat garbled and biased."

            "And I suppose you hold us responsible for that, as well."

            "The thought occurred to me."  The creature started to add, with some heat, "If you murdering pirates had just stopped to listen to us---"

            Cook banged the napkin holder on the table again.  When he had their attention, he asked, "What happened after you contacted Earth?"

            "The quarantine remained in force.  But, with our aid and assistance, your scientists were able to develop an immunization against this, er, possession.  We could not gain their trust without this immunization."

            "An immunizer?"

            The creature leaned forward.  "Many of our young do not reach full maturity and intelligence.  From them we were able to extract cells that---well, the immunization comes from a merger and union taking place, but with one without experiences or memories.  The immunized are unaffected.   No memories or experiences are added.  And of course once one merger takes place, no more can."

            "That's it?" Grandfather asked.  "That's all there is to it?"

            "What do you mean, all there is to it?  It took sixty years to figure it out."

            Cook raised his improvised gavel, but the creature and Grandfather calmed down.  The creature went on.  "Once your government was satisfied, the quarantine was lifted.  A colony has been established.  About a thousand immunized humans have come to the former Sheridan's Planet, now Grahoomerbung."

            Both Grandfather and the creature were silent.  Cooked them over, then glanced towards the door.  Time was running out.  They would have to reopen soon.  He said to the creature, "But what are you doing in the Cafe, showing an old picture of Grandfather, wanting to know where he is."

            "Yes," Grandfather said.  "I'd like to know the answer to that, too."

            The creature shuddered, then said, "You need to know.  We've talked of the merger.  It is a not something entered into with a light heart.  It is sacred."  It looked at Grandfather.  "No matter what you thought, you were never in danger."

            "You tried to take over my body!"

            "It is a merger, not a takeover!"

            Cook tapped the napkin holder on the tabletop again.  "Enough.  Be quiet, Grandfather.  We have a mystery here, and this...this..."  He looked at the creature.  "Er, do you have a name?"

            The creature looked thoughtful, if an alien species could be said to have human expressions, then said, "No, I don't.  Names are given after merger."  He pointed at Grandfather.  "Jack-Scott-Sheffield used to call me 'Frank,' for reasons I do not understand."

            "I suppose 'Frank' will do."  Cook shrugged.

            "I must ask why you call him 'Grandfather,'" the creature---Frank---added.

            Cook and Waitress looked at each other.  Then Waitress said, "Well, er, Frank, here on Earth we call ourselves by simple tags."  She smiled.  "Where we are, what we do, and so on."

            "Our names have value and we protect them," Cook added.  "We do not use them in public."

            "I see," the creature---Frank---said.  "But it was not true when the UNEF expedition arrived."

            "It's something to do with the Hive culture," Grandfather said---direct to Frank, and with an even tone.  "Heavy use of computerized social networks.  False names abound.  I don't understand it."

            "It is protection," Cook said.

            Creature Frank fixed them with his multi-eyed stare---anger or amusement?  "But you two have names," it said.  "And you know each other's names, don't you?"

            "I never learned them," Grandfather added.  "They were 'waitress' and 'cook,' or, sometimes, when other shift people were around, it was 'night-shift waitress' and 'night-shift cook.'"  He looked at them.  "What are your names, children?"

            The two of them looked at each other.  Then Waitress answered.  "I am Betty."

            "And I'm Cole."  Cook smiled.

            "No last names?" Grandfather asked.

            "It kinda died out in the last generation or two," Cook said.  "We stopped taking the last names from our parents.  But sometimes I'll think of myself as Cole Cook, though---"  He smiled at Waitress and added, "I don't think Betty thinks of herself as Betty Waitress, though."

            Creature Frank vibrated---shaking his head in sadness?---and then reached into his pouch and pulled out an ordinary-looking computer pad.  As it touched the screen and brought up images.  "We are worried by this.  All humans of Grahoomerbung have names, family names, and are proud of them.  What happened on Earth?"

            "What are you doing?" Grandfather asked.

            "Sponsoring them for emigration to Grahoomerbung," it replied.  It finished fiddling with the tablet and leaned forward.  "If you two would like to emigrate to Grahoomerbung, we can sponsor who we wish.  You can have a better life than what you have here, but you must leave here to get it.  You may take up my offer, or not, as you choose."

            Grandfather snorted.  "I suppose that like on Sheridan's Planet---Grahoomerbung---is better than it is here."

            "Would you have settled on Earth as it is now?" Creature Frank asked.

            Cook and Waitress, Cole and Betty, looked at each other.  Grandfather said, "Never you mind!  We are in the middle of telling them your story---but you're avoiding your end of it.  How did you get here, and what are you doing here?"

            "I am here," Creature Frank said, then stopped, shook itself, and cleared its throat.  "Sorry.  If you won't interrupt me."  To Cook and Waitress, it said, "We are here---I am here as part of a diplomatic mission.  We are ironing out final details concerning our membership in your Stellar Federal Union.  We seek colonial status, but with self-appointed and self-elected governors and legislators.  Positions we have right now."

            "That is...usual," Grandfather, frowning, said.

            "But I had---other hopes---when I attached myself to this mission.  There was unfinished business I had to attend to.  Your authorities were cooperative, They allowed me to search."

            "Hhmph!"  Grandfather crossed his arms across his chest and leaned back.  "I find that hard to believe."

            "Don't interrupt," Cook said.

            "You may check," Creature Frank said.  "They know what I might do, and also what I have promised not to do.  And it is a joint effort.  As of this moment, though, Jack-Scot-Sheffield is the sole survivor of the expedition that we have tracked down."  Before anyone else could speak, it added, "He is the one I needed to find."

            Grandfather said nothing.  Creature Frank went on.  "Yes, you, Jack-Scott-Sheffield.  You know.  You remember.  You promised."

            Grandfather looked at the creature, but still did not speak.  Waitress said, "Well, I don't know.  Tell us."

            "We did not understand," Grandfather said.  "We were invited to some sort of rite.  But we didn't understand."  He shook his head.

            "You learned better."

            "Yes, we did."  Grandfather turned to the others.  "It was a rite of binding.  Those who were ready to merge with another creature were, uh, bonded to the creature.  Pledged to it.  Bound to it."

            "And at that ceremony, I was pledged to you."

            Waitress gasped. Cook nodded, and said, "That's why you're here."

            "After all these years?" Grandfather asked.

            "That does not matter," Creature Frank said.  "We bond for life."

            Grandfather shook his head.  "You could have found someone else...some thing else."

            "I could have bonded with anyone," Creature Frank said.  "Any thing.  But I am bound to you."  It blinked.  "I could no more bond to another partner than I could change the color of the sky of Grahoomerbung."  It paused, then said, "So the expedition left, and time passed, and more time passed.  And here I am, and here he is."

            It looked at Grandfather, then to Cook and Waitress.  "You see, Cole and Betty, there was no danger to anyone on Earth from me.  Anyone but Jack-Scott-Sheffield, that is."

            "By ethics alone?" Waitress asked.

            "Yes, that.  My---"  It paused, as if searching for the right word, then came up with it.  "My consecration binds me more than chains.  I am able to merge with anyone, but I will not."

            Cook said, "Then you're here to merge with him after all."

            Grandfather started to stir, but the creature remained still.  Neither spoke.

            "Look, er, Frank," Waitress said.  "I don't think he wants to."

            "I intend to ask him.  If he says no, that is that."  It turned its eyes towards Grandfather.  "Will you merge with me?"

            Grandfather shook his head.  "I can't.  I couldn't sixty years ago, and I can't now."
            "I was afraid of that," Creature Frank said.  It started to get down from its chair.  "I am forever denied the most glorious moment my species can experience.  Good-bye, Jack-Scott-Sheffield."

            Waitress started to speak, but, from back in the kitchen, an electronic chime rang out.  Cook said, "We've got to reopen, Waitress and I.  And what happens between you two is up to you two."

            "I won't change," Grandfather said.  "You're not saying, you...you're in favor of what this, this...what it wants to do."

            "No, no, not like that," Cook said.  "But if you talked sixty years ago we wouldn't be here now."  He stood up, and pointed to the back.  "Sit back there and discuss it together.  But, er, don't do anything unless you tell us, because we might have to explain it."  He turned to Waitress.  "Come, Betty, let's get things going."

            "Right you are, Cole," Waitress replied.

            As the two of them moved towards the counter and the doors, Grandfather turned to the creature and said, "I suppose we could talk a little more."

            Waitress whispered to Cook, "Emigration, huh?"

            "I'm thinking about it.  Ready?"  Cook stood at the door.

            "Ready as I ever am."

            Cook nodded, and touched the lock.  The doors slid open.  The windows unopaqued.

#

            Customers waited outside when the Cafe reopened.  More showed up as they served orders.  It wasn't a big rush, just enough to keep Cook and Waitress busy until the next lull.  That came at the end of their shift, when the staff for the morning shift was coming down from their quarters.  Morning-Shift Cook said to both of them, "Grandfather came back.  Didn't he quit?"

            "He did," Waitress replied.  "Oh.  I never asked if he wanted his job back."  She looked back at the booth.  Grandfather sat in the last booth, his back to them.  Creature Frank wasn't there.  "Damn.  I didn't see him leave."

            Cook joined her.  He frowned.  "Hold on," he said, and started towards the table.

            Grandfather didn't look up or move as they approached.  He had a strange expression on his face---shocked surprise?  Cook touched Grandfather on the shoulder, and he slumped over onto the table.  Cook bent over him and put his hand on Grandfather's neck.  "No pulse.  Call an ambulance."

#

            But there was nothing to do.  Grandfather was dead.  The Cafe closed while the body was removed, then service and life went on.

            Neither Cook nor Waitress mentioned the creature.  After the body was taken away, Waitress found a small pouch, Creature Frank's pouch.  She took it up to their room and went through it together.  Inside were the creature's diplomatic credentials, the computer pad it used, that picture of young Jack-Scott-Sheffield it passed around, and a wad of bills.

            "We can turn it in later," Waitress said.  "There's bound to be an investigation.  You know what I think happened?"

            "I know what happened," Cook said.

            "It merged with Grandfather.  The shock of it---"  She shuddered.

            Cook nodded.  "So.  We turn this in.  We tell them what we know.  And then?"

            "Well...there's Grahoomerbung."  Waitress looked into his eyes.  "Would you go, Cole?"

            Cook grinned.  "You are thinking what I'm thinking."

#

            There was an investigation.  But it didn't last long.  Outside the diplomatic mission from Grahoomerbung, it did not matter to anyone.  They asked a few more questions of Cook and Waitress, and that was all.

            But they asked at the Emigration Office.  Cook and Waitress, now and future Cole and Betty, gave their notice three days later and were gone.

 

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