Surfing Samurai Robots
by Mel Gilden
I was a long way from T'toom. The computers did most of the work aboard my ship, the Philip Marlowe, and I had plenty of leisure in which to think about how I had come to be there, miles above an obscure planet, and falling toward its biggest ocean.
T'toom was a nice place, and you would absolutely want to live there. I did, anyway, for a long time. When I first heard the signals the AW-OL guys were pulling in with their backyard rig, I was working for T'toom Gravitational Products, the family business Grampa Zamp had started when he was about my age. I was running slaberingeo ear spines through a vat of fixer, so that the anti-gravity stuff covering the spines wouldn't rot. I grew up to hate slaberingeo spines. They smelled bad, and they left behind tiny itchy hairs that you could never get rid of entirely, no matter how much you washed.
I had stopped to enjoy a thorough and useless scratch when radio played a recording of the first signal AW-OL received. The eerie sounds didn't make any sense to me then. But like a lot of people, I never forgot where I was when I heard them. AW-OL meant Alien Worlds-Overhearing Life. These guys had aimed a big dish at the sky, trying to listen in on conversations they suspected the big kids were having just among themselves at the other end of the galaxy.
No one was more surprised than they when they actually heard something. As more broadcasts came in, scientists accumulated enough of a sample that they were able to decode them. In a few years, everybody was learning English. "Talking like an Earthman" became as common as household ooze or slaberingeo spines. All the best people did it at parties. English became the international language of trade and diplomacy. I took some classes, too, so as not to be left out.
We didn't know what Earth people looked like, though everybody had an opinion. Magazines were full of artists' conceptions. According to them, Earth people were just like Toomlers, but with more arms and funny things on the sides of their heads that collected sound-thing Earth people on the radio called ears.
The pictures were interesting but ultimately pointless. There was no way to know for sure. That first broadcast became famous, not just because it was first, but because it terrified everybody on T'toom. What we heard was that some planet called Earth was being invaded by some other planet called Mars. Mars was doing pretty well. It was possible that when Mars finished with Earth, T'toom would be next.
The AW-OL guys eventually figured out that the invasion of Earth by Mars was a fake, written by Howard Koch and performed by Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater. We had theater on T'toom, but nothing like this. Even before the AW-OL guys had figured this out, American radio became all the rage. I listened too, but I didn't really get excited until I heard The Adventures of Philip Marlowe for the first time.
Marlowe was a rough, tough detective who took no lip from anyone. I imagined I looked a lot like him. I wanted to look more like him, but nobody on T'toom knew any more about trench coats or fedoras than they did about Earth people.
My work with T'toom Gravitational Products began to suffer. All I could think about was Philip Marlowe and the babes who fell for him, and the corrupt cops and big money and gats and heaters. A man with a gun entered the room. Bang! A shot rang out! Marlowe dodged just in time! I loved that stuff.
I knew that Philip Marlowe was just as big a fake as Orson Welles' Martians. After all, he was played by an actor named Van Heflin. And he seemed unlikely in reality. But I didn't care about any of this. Marlowe himself might be a fake, but there had to be guys on Earth like him. I didn't think you could imagine a guy like Marlowe out of nowhere.
Finally, my dad called me into the office. It was a new office, just oozed, and the walls glistened a wet orange. Dad said, "Zoot, your mind isn't on your work." He actually spoke English. We all did, mostly. Our local language, Gomkrix, was just for peons.
I looked at the floor. "Yes, sir."
"What's the problem?"
For a moment I didn't know what to say. Then I decided, what the Durf, I'd tell him everything. Maybe he'd understand. My hopes were not very high. As I spoke, Dad's nose twitched, showing how upset he was about what I was telling him. The more I talked, the faster it twitched. But the twitching stopped when I told him I wanted to go to Earth. Few things had frightened me as much as Dad's motionless nose.
Dad didn't say anything for a moment. Then he said, "You want to go to Earth and be a detective like Philip Marlowe." He sounded as if he couldn't believe that was actually what I'd told him. He spoke in a clear dramatic voice, just like somebody on the radio.
"The family business is good enough for me and your Grampa Zamp. I thought it might be good enough for you too."
"It's fine, sir. It's just that I would like to try some other things before I settle down."
His nose twitched a little, encouraging me. He said, "How would you get to Earth?"
"I thought I'd buy a secondhand sneeve." A sneeve was a round interstellar ship named after a round animal that spun through the air from tree to tree.
"With what would you buy this sneeve?"
Dad had certainly put his finger right where it hurt. I said, "I thought you might loan me the money."
"When would you pay it back?"
"When I came back to T'toom, I'd work for free."
"That's unlikely." He paused. I was afraid he'd stopped altogether. I was on the edge of backing out the door, taking my dreams of hot babes and cold gats with me. Dad looked up, seemed surprised to still there. He said, "You know that nobody from T'toom has ever actually landed on Earth."
"I know that, Dad, but they've mapped the whole thing from the air. I have an idea where I want to land."
"If the radio is any indicator, civilization on Earth is not very civilized. Nobody has landed on Earth because nobody wants to."
"Yes, sir. But they need me." I'd never said that before. Never even thought it. But now that it had escaped from my mouth, I knew it was true. Those poor goons on Earth needed me. I could clean up their messes. Just like Philip Marlowe. Blam! Blam! The Chevy (What was a Chevy?) roared away, tires squealing! Marlowe was tired, but he had to go on. Enough guys get away with murder, pretty soon, everybody's doing it.
"I doubt that," Dad said. "Still, you're no good to me as you are. Maybe this is one way for you to get this private detective stuff out of your system." I could feel both my hearts pumping hard, making the veins in my face throb. "Go find a good sneeve. I'll pay for it. But you have to promise to be careful when you get to Earth."
He knew as well as I did that being careful on a planet like Earth would consist mainly of not going there at all. Once I landed, all bets were off. From the radio broadcasts, I had a general idea what to expect on Earth, but beyond that, anything was possible. Anything.
Dad said no more about it, and neither did I. I suppose he hoped that the danger of going to Earth would sink in at last, or something. And it almost did. I kept finding excuses not to go hunting for a sneeve.
Then one day, Grampa Zamp hobbled over to where I was taking down spines from a curing rack and said, "How's the search for the sneeve coming?"
I shrugged, unaccountably feeling guilty.
Grarnpa Zamp chuckled and said, "You remind me of myself at
your age. Going to Earth was not on my list of things to do, but only
because we hadn't yet received our first transmission. I wish I could go
with you." He shook his head, then lifted his hat to fix me with a steely
eye. I imagined the gangsters that Marlowe went up against looked like
that. He said, "You are going, aren't you?"
"Oh, sure," I said. So, I found a good secondhand sneeve, and my dad paid for it over my mom's objections.
Grampa Zamp just chuckled and rubbed my nose to show that he was proud of me. When we weren't working for the company, he helped me plot out my landing place and what I would do after I came down. I never felt so close to Grampa Zamp, and I thought about staying on T'toom. But I knew that wasn't possible. If I stayed, Grampa Zamp would probably never speak to me again. When the day came for me to go, I felt about as stupid as a slaberingeo, but I climbed into my sneeve and took off.
The trip didn't take long. I ate and slept, but mostly I thought and played recordings I'd made of The Adventures of Philip Marlowe. Now, I was only miles above an obscure planet called Earth, and falling toward its biggest ocean the Pacific Ocean, if the radio could be believed.
I dove through the atmosphere, and when my sneeve sliced into the ocean, first the water was green, and then blue, and then darker till it was almost black. Creatures swam around me, not even curious. Fish, I thought. When I judged I was deep enough, I started the pulsator and moved toward the shore, leaving a wake of interference waves behind me.
I admit it: I was excited. When the ship stopped, I stood before the
airlock screw for a moment trying to remember what I was doing here. I
could still turn around and go home. Sure. In a pig's eye. Durf, I didn't
even know what a pig was.
I cycled the airlock screw, and it twisted me out into cold salty water. I took my bearings and swam toward the beach, where creatures leaped after a thing that looked like a sneeve. Sneeves? Here? This was Earth! There weren't even any trees!
Soon the water was shallow enough that I could feel my feet touch the sandy bottom. I walked out of the water, my clothes dripping wet. The Earth people were so busy with their sneeve that they didn't even notice me.
I was busy too. Busy staring.
Earth people were taller than I had expected. And pinker. Toomlers tend to run from pure white to a soft, earthy brovvn. Pink was a surprise. And their faces were real different. I could see they'd take some getting used to. If you mashed a Toomler face flat, it might look like one of these. There were those big eyes, and a mouth with a red ring around it, and what I took to be a nose. The nose was sort of a pimple in the middle of each face, unlike the nose on a Toomler, which, for all practical purposes, is the face.
And instead of the treated tree sap we wear, they wore tubes of soft stuff in many colorful patterns. Unless, of course, the tubes and patterns were part of their bodies.
I walked up the wet sand onto the dry stuff and stopped. The Earth people on the beach laughed as they sailed the sneeve to each other. Nobody ever missed. They were good. I wondered if flinging the ol' sneeve was actually a profession on Earth.
Suddenly, the sneeve-thing spun at me. Reflexively, I reached up and pulled it out of the sky. The thing they were throwing wasn't really a sneeve, of course. It was made of stiff red stuff with raised patterns all over it, some of which may have been writing.
The Earth people saw me now. They watched me carefully but kept backing away, as if they thought I was a slaberingeo. I held up the sneeve in one hand, and an open palm with the other. I hoped the empty palm would be the universal sign that I wasn't carrying a weapon, and I said, "I'm not heeled, if that's what you're worried about, sweethearts."
"Cowabunga!" more than one of them cried. "It talks English!"
Their astonishment was fair enough, considering how physically different I was from them. They may have even guessed that I wasn't from Earth. Guessed? Durf, if they weren't certain of it, I was dealing with the wrong dominant race. Grampa Zamp and I had discussed the problem posed by my origin and decided the direct approach would be best. Just brazen the situation out. I said, "That seems to make two of us."
More astonishment among the masses. I threw the sneeve at one of the Earth people, a very tall one wearing vibrant blue tubes. The Earth person caught it easily and held it awkwardly, uncertain whether to throw it back or not.
"Look," I said, "you folks seem to be laboring under the misconception that I'm something special."
"Dig that bitchen schnoz," one of them said. The rest laughed, but as far as I could tell, it was nervous laughter. It was just something to do until the shock went away.
I said, "I have to explain this all the time. I was born funny."
"You mean a birth defect?" the Earth person holding the sneeve said.
Birth defect? It had a nice ring to it. I could use that phrase. "Yes," I said, "a birth defect."
"Pretty aggro defect," the man who had commented on my schnoz said. He thought he was funnier than Fred Allen. But he knew a lot of words I'd' never heard on the radio. Evidently, there was a lot more to English than "Stick 'em up."
"Maybe his mother took something in the sixties," another of them said. This one had a vaguely different shape from the comedian or the one holding the sneeve. A female? Her hair was red and hung to her shoulders.
"Good guess," I said, wondering what the sixties were.
"Rip it, Thumper," the comedian called.
Thumper considered for a moment, and then threw the sneeve to me. I caught it, and threw it to someone else. Pretty soon, we were all throwing the sneeve around together as if we'd been doing it all our lives, just one big happy family.
When Thumper brushed back his hair with a hand, I could see flaps growing on either side of his head. Those must be ears. Very fancy. Now that I'd seen his, I noticed that most of the others had ears too. It was hard to tell about some of them, their hair was so long.
The sun was going down. It looked a lot like T'toom's sun going down from T'toom. I felt homesick and threw the sneeve harder, trying to make the feeling go away. But homesickness stuck like house ooze that had been left out too long.
I was homesick, and there was nothing to do about it but make Earth my home. If I went back to T'toom now, Grampa Zamp would never speak to me again, and everywhere I went, I'd be the guy who failed.
Besides, these Earth folks needed me. I had to remember that. If the radio broadcasts were any indication, there was enough crime to support one more private eye.