I was in the air en route to Jamaica once when the guy next to me said: "We aliens like to fly first class."
I looked at him, closely. He winked. Twice. On the second wink I spewed the gin and tonic I'd been sipping all over him. Luckily, the old folks sitting across from us were asleep, precluding embarrassment. Although I did have a good excuse for it. After all, the guy doing the winking had two eyelids, the second resembling an icky green jelly-like membrane. Other than this rather minor oversight he could have passed for any insurance salesman.
When I finally regained the ability to talk, I didn't know what to say. The only other conversation we'd made up to that point concerned the perception of American tourists abroad--the cliche image of balding middle aged men with camcorders around their neck, their oafish pomposity, and penchant for littering. Mentally tabulating my possible responses to this new and startling revelation, I formulated--in about 3.6 seconds--these alternatives:
B) I could remain calm and go quietly insane.
C) I could ask the creature what planet he was from.
D) I could ask the stewardess for a gin and tonic.
"Good choice," said the alien, when the stewardess finally arrived.
To her he said: "Make mine a double orange juice, and just keep his coming."
As it turned out, he was from the planet Thurbann in the Vega system.
He'd landed on Earth in a debris-fueled ramjet which dropped out of warp drive in the vicinity of Neptune, and he claimed to have coasted to Earth and set down in the Indian Ocean near the Maldives. Now he was just sightseeing--which apparently is what Thurbannese do best. Consequently, when I mentioned that I'd never been to Jamaica, he replied: "That's amazing. I've seen everything there is to see on my home planet."
"Really?" I said, excitedly. "What's it like?"
"Pretty boring. Most of our perfectly round globe is covered by water three feet deep. No volcanoes, mountains, canyons, nothing. We live far underground, where everyone pretty much says what they think. Which isn't much."
"What do they eat on Thurbann?" I asked, intrigued.
"Did,, not do. No one lives there during half of the solar year--which incidentally is about three hundred of your Earth years. We're on an elliptical orbit, you understand. In our winter, when temperatures drop about two degrees cooler than summer, we all leave."
"Why, because the oceans freeze. What you would call fish merely hibernate. But the flying turtles take to the air and use the time to reproduce."
"Topaus. They're what we hunt and eat. It's not fair to hunt them when they can't hide, though. So there's a ban. Won't be open season on them, in fact, for another hundred years."
"What are they like?"
"Like sea turtles in a way, only their flippers are bigger. Over the ages they've adapted, you see. History has it the oceans were once deeper. Maybe even as deep as two miles."
I gasped. "What happened to all that water?"
"Well, one theory has it some tourists from a very dry neighboring star cluster have been visiting Thurbann for ages. They arrive during our winter when we're gone and take home 'souvenirs' as you would say, of water. Or rather ice. Couple thousand years more of this and ours will be a desert planet. Already we got ozone holes all over the place, and global warming."
"So the loss of water means..."
"Since we have no temperature variations and therefore no thunderstorms and lightning to produce ozone like you do, less water to us means less of our oxygen producing plankton. And less oxygen, of course, means more holes for radiation. More radiation and it's the end. Our turtles are doomed. Ergo, we are doomed. That is, unless we can restore the water somehow. You know--find a planet somewhere that has ice caps and a global warming problem, but doesn't see that their water levels are rising because we're stealing it. See how it works?"
"I've met all kinds of odd people flying on planes," I told him, sincerely, "but never anyone like you."
"That can change," the alien replied, ominously. "By the way, you can call me Zeereeaanean."
We shook hands. "Hi Hal," I said. "I'm Jon. ...You don't mind if I take notes, do you?"
"Not at all. It's what I've been doing." He shrugged and winked twice again.
I scribbled frantically. "Tell me. When do your people return to Thurbann?"
"Oh, in about a century. Like I said, when it's open season."
I dropped my pencil. "That's a long time."
"Not really. I can't speak for others, but personally I like to spend at least that long to get the feel of a place. Another ten or twenty years and I may be on my way to what you'd call Epsilon Centuri. Now the fishing there is really superb."
"Tell me about it."
He did. I was particularly fascinated by his description of the 800 decibel mating call of the triple-throated Zaabiian Wofbat.
We were silent for a while, and then he said: "Isn't your next question going to be can I communicate with dolphins?"
I smiled. "You tell me."
"Okay, I will. Your next question is...just a minute...will Ross Perot ever be President of the United States? Who is Ross Perot, by the way, and what's with those Florida voters? Alas, I don't know. I can read minds sometimes. That's how I know who I can trust to tell these things--or who will be believed. But I can never read the future. It's rather hard to read something that isn't there yet."
"I know what you mean," I replied, balling up my notes. "Would you be interested in accompanying me to the offices of the Washington Post?"
"And you're funny too," Hal said, with appropriate sincerity.
When I asked him if he'd ever seen The X Files on TV, he just smiled.
By the time we disembarked at Kingston, Hal and I were both drunk and laughing like what he called "skeeksas." As luck would have it, we stayed at the same hotel. But when we met the next day at the beach, I was shocked. Here he was, wearing Bermuda shorts now, a straw hat, and with one of those plastic, blow-up inner tubes around his waist.
At the sight of the Bullwinkle horns I winced.
And winced again when from one hand he strategically dropped a chewing gum wrapper while his other hand gripped a rum punch with one of those tiny umbrellas in it.
"Hal," I said, approaching him in dismay. "Hal--you look just like a...a tourist!"
Hal grinned. "But that's just what I am," he said, with a prophetic laugh.
At which point two dozen other sunbathers looked over at me and winked. Twice.
x x xJonathan Lowe is author of Postal, an award winning novel read by Frank Muller and endorsed by Clive Cussler. The Publishing Mills Audiobooks - Postal, Jonathan Lowe