Betcha can’t eat just one . . .

Eighteen Chances

by Tim Bean © 2004

To create an attractive snack chips display, symmetry and neatness were the keys. Six across and three deep--that was the ideal set up. Although a tiered shelf was considered, it was ultimately discarded. People liked full shelves, tteeming with food. When they saw empty shelves and blank space, their eyes turned away from the visually sparse sight. And when they saw plenty, they wanted the plenty to be neat and organized, as symmetrical as Greek temples.

Potato chip bags were always designed to be colorful, and whatever wasn’t a striking red or blue or gold was a flash of silver foil. It was no different from a field of daisies--painfully yellow and wide open to attract bees.

The salesman put the bags in one at a time, carefully grasping the bags like delicate eggshells. Six across and three deep on a flat shelf. Each bag had its sides pushed in slightly, and the tops fanned out. That was how people wanted them to look: an attractive, eye-catching bag of snack chips.

The salesman wore blue overalls and a heavy beard: a dark mass of trimmed hair that rashed up his cheeks. His sleeves were rolled up and his arms were also covered in the same thick hair, but his fingers were long and dainty, like a pianist’s.

Another pretty bag in place.

At the top was a big banner outlined in red, white, and blue. “Old Glory Kettle Chips” the banner read in Gothic print. Below the banner was an illustrated woman, dressed in black and white Amish garb and holding out a bowl filled with small, crinkly shapes. Behind her was a steaming kettle with the handle of a spoon sticking out. Below her were three more mini-banners, each printed in the same Gothic lettering. “Family Owned for One Hundred Years,” “Peanut Oil,” and below all that: “Homestyle.” A lot of work went into designing this bag, but the final product was very attractive.

He opened another cardboard box. Six more bags of chips, each packed in dense foam insulation. His careful, dainty hands plucked one out. Light and airy. He danced it into its spot.

Above the shelf, a hand-lettered sign hung down. White, with a black border. It read “$2.59 each.” It was such a little simple thing. Who knew the hundreds of hours that went into designing and planning that little sign, deducing the most effective style? Who knew a worker had lost his life in creating this sign? The writing was light and feminine, but not girlish. It was the handwriting of a female cook. Handmade, but not unprofessional. It was attached to the shelf with an alligator clip.

A girl came up to him. A young girl. He jumped when he saw her. She grinned and said something.

“Hello,” he said, “How are you?” He grinned. It looked friendly. He had practiced.

She said something else. He nodded, pretending to understand.

She put out her hand, expecting something. Her mouth flapped again. More nonsensical sounds, vocal cords twitching and ringing out, lips working.

What a primitive way of communication, he thought, ejecting air through a tiny organ like that, and getting messages across by no more than minute changes in articulation.

He tried to repeat her message. If she wasn’t satisfied with his responses, he might be unable to leave the packages here. Panic building, he nodded again.

She jerked her thumb back to the office and spoke.

He nodded and pointed back there too, lifting his arm and stretching out his long, dainty finger. A strange, motion, but what about this place wasn’ strange? It was the reason he was chosen; he could think well in strange situations. He guessed at things, and his guesses were usually right. Out of a field of ten thousand candidates, he was chosen.

The girl nodded again, waved at him and turned around. She walked slowly back to her station and grabbed the arm of some strange metal object that held a large, rapidly rotating blade. There was a large hunk of cooked meat sitting on it. She sliced off thin pieces.

What strangeness in this place, he thought. What things could be learned!

He put another bag on the shelf. Pushed in the sides only a little, just enough, and then fluffed out the top. Just right. He put the rest of the bags up.

He collapsed the box. The job was done. Eighteen bags, six across and three deep, sitting on the best, most attractive shelf his civilization could produce. Two more stops to go, one with twenty bags to distribute, the other with sixty bags. The last stop was the biggest, and the most dangerous. It was known as a “supermarket,” a massive commercial property involved in the exchange of perishable foods for representative currency. Funny thing. They called the currency representative, but it did not really represent anything. As close as his race could understand it, the currency represented trust in their ruling government: a qualitative value determining a quantitative. How interesting.

He tucked the boxes under his arm. He was glad the girl hadn’ tried to stop him. Very glad. If she had, he might have had to do something. He was instructed not to let anything interfere, even if an unfortunate person stumbled onto his plans. These were sentient beings, like him, the studies told. They were not gestoc, or “cattle.” But if he had to, he had to.

Underneath this bio suit was a protective layer of gel. Back home, it helped insulate him in alternate seasons of freezing cold and extreme heat. It was, though, was extremely lethal to humans, as they had found in their first attempt at tentative contact. He remembered the wide-eyed human who had tried to shake one of their hands (an unusual practice) and had died a long and most horrible death.

He turned his head to the counter. The girl wasn’t looking. She was still cutting that dead flesh on the metal blade, whirling it back and forth, back and forth, getting it ready to exchange for the strange empty currency.

He looked back at the snack chips. They sat looking attractive and delicious. All that time, all that study, finally culminated. He put his hand on the first bag, his ultra-sensitive skin feeling the warm life-heat baking off it even through the thick bio-suit.

“Ninet boc,” he said in the strange, human method of communication, and then the same thing through his mind, in his native communication.

The bag twitched in answer, the sides crinkling out. He pushed them back in gently. Eighteen chances, he thought. The cost of these bags was tremendous. With their resources, they could only produce eighty-eight bags. And the last fifty were considered an extreme case. The chances that he would be able to set up and distribute the bags in that potential hostile environment were slim. No, his superiors said this place offered the best chances; that these eighteen would be the most likely to succeed.

“Ninet boc,” he said again through his mind, and two more bags twitched in reply. He turned away, the space between his thighs starting to switch and get wet. It was his way of crying.

He walked out the door and to the old, gray van he drove. His suit’s life support would only last him another four hours. After that he could choose between suffocating in the Earth’s nitrogen-saturated environment--which would be horribly painful (it would be like a human breathing thick clouds of chlorine)--or he could evaporate himselff and the van in one quick blink. Without question he chose the latter. It would be quick, painless, and clean. He carried the device in his pocket and fingered it as he walked to the van.

He looked up and at the bright star they called the Sun. A big, yellow, beating thing, radiating heat and energy down on the organic, watery Earth. He looked up at it, the protective UV film growing and covering his eyes in less than a second. Their central star was five billion years old, roughly, and still had a long, productive life ahead. It gives earth much more energy then they could possibly use, although these humans have never seriously attempted to harness its power. That will change, he thought.

The he shrugged. Despite its nearness and apparent size, he was unimpressed. After all, they only had one.

x x x

You know, up until I read this story, I LIKED potato chips. This is Mr. Bean’s first story this year. I liked it when I read it and liked his second story even more. When we post it, later on this year, I’ll ask if you’ll agree—and if you’ll forgive my slight error in publishing two stories by the same author. For now, hope you enjoyed this. Comments to our BBS.

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