For the June 28th meeting of the Chester Library Science Fiction and Fantasy Readers Group (everyone invited – 2pm meeting room upstairs), Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers is to be discussed. In 2005 Issue #5 a humorous story of mine was published in Jupiter magazine. Entitled Weapons Sold Separately, it was inspired by my reading of Roadside Picnic. Here is a tweaked version of my tale.
The title was inspired by a random words computer program used by a speculative fiction website called The Rumour Mill, which has sadly closed after its owners were sued by Publish America. Some Rumour Mill contributors concocted a spoof novel, Atlanta Nights, to demonstrate that Publish America was nothing more than a vanity press with no editing or checking in operation. Ironically, the plot-flawed, ridiculous-charactered Atlanta Nights became a best seller!
Weapons Sold Separately
By Geoff Nelder
Forcing himself to bear the Nevada desert heat, Jethro Zedwe’s spine shivered as behind him a roar thundered closer. His meditation in control, he suppressed his anger.
The purple red hues of the baking sandstone cliffs and ravines had only one human to take it all in. Standing on a red sandstone rock overlooking Signal Gulch, he opened his arms to take in the spirits of his Shoshone ancestors and chanted, “Gwananaa, gwananaa.” He had no idea what it meant except that it was an important Shoshone spiritual word and it would endear him to the ancients. For centuries they’d enjoyed hard but ancient lives in the ravines below. Duped out of their homelands, their spirits remained in the dust, the rocks, and the very air he breathed. He’d promised the eagle’s feather he kept in his New York apartment that this summer he’d come to absorb the spiritual atmosphere, the ennui. Although both of his parents looked as Caucasian as a chalk cliff, he resembled a Hollywood Pocahontas. Even to the beaked nose and black hair. Pity his gravestone teeth were yellow and crooked; but he’d never needed treatment and wasn’t letting any cosmetic orthodontist loose in his mouth. So, what the hell was a damn airplane doing flying too low over the sacred ground?
Over his right shoulder, a blunt-nosed grey airplane headed for the ravine floor.
“Damn USAF disturbing my ancestors,” he said, kicking up a mini-dust storm, while he evil-eyed the craft. “Well, there ain’t no airstrip out there, buddy. Whoa, that’s a crash-land.” A rising cloud of disturbed sand and grit met his eyes a full three seconds before the awful grinding noise hurt Jethro’s ears. He knew he wasted time but he unfolded the most detailed map he had of Phantom Gulch. A track wound its way north to Tonopah USAF rocket test range. Jethro nodded at the supposed link to the crash-landed plane. He’d have to drive his motor home off road but the desert surface should be Okay.
It took him twenty minutes to tease the vehicle off the ridge, down a rough track and another mile down a dried riverbed to the crash site. If the rocket was painted grey yesterday, it had a sandy coat now. At a hundred yards, and the width of two buses, it outsized the typical USAF test rocket Jethro had expected to find. Amazingly, it seemed undamaged though any undercarriage would be wire wool. No markings – typical of secret government projects.
The nose of the rocket had bulldozed a dune of its own, so that if there was a forward window, it was covered now. Scrambling round to the left, he saw that he’d made an error when he thought the rocket had escaped damage. Jagged bedrock had scraped all the left side and had sprung a cargo door.
He come out here as a temporary escape from the hustle of his commodities dealership job in the New York Stock Exchange, but a gleam sparkled in his eyes. There, in this rocket, plane, spaceship or whatever, lay a treasure trove of merchandise ready for the taking. Resting on the edge of the doorway, his hand sank a quarter-inch into the metal. Jethro, stunned, jumped back and fell. Cautiously, he crept back on his fours, brushed loose sand off the outer skin of the spaceship and poked. Again, it behaved like a silver sponge with increasing resistance so, at most, only his fingertip went in.
He went back to his motor home, heaved himself up the ladder to the roof and looked around. The dust had settled but he anticipated imminent search and rescue. Fine, no sign of anyone. He slid back down and ignoring nagging cautionary thoughts clambered into the gaping cargo door. A light came on. Then he stopped. If a sensor flipped a light switch, it might signal his intrusion to an alarm. Too late and the booty before him was too alluring to ignore. Silvery soft packaging protected most of the merchandise. Jethro whistled with impressed delight at the boxes of electronic gadgets, most of which were easily portable.
Half an hour later his whistling transformed to gut-hurting laughter. The weird markings on the gadgets added to his alien-origin hypothesis. All the better. If he could figure out how they worked, he’d make his fortune, but he’d have to hurry. Helicopters were bound to arrive any moment.
Each time he scrambled to his vehicle, he looked for incoming vehicles, air or land. Each time he thought he had enough already but the next load could contain a futuristic Eldorado he’d be foolish to leave for some soldier. Eventually, his quivering stomach made him climb into the driver’s seat and create his own cloud of dust. Maybe no one knew about the crashed spaceship but him. He could sneak back after a few days, coincidental-like.
The nearest town was Tonopah, but he knew it would be stuffed full of the armed services so he motored on south to Vegas.
The back street motel lacked the mega-wattage lights of The Strip, but it had wifi in his room, and a parking place for the motor home.
Jethro had the jitters. Over excitement and fear nagged at his stomach. Eager to set up a sales pitch yet bothered that he might have committed a crime, and not only on Earth. He had to calm down. The motel shop could have sold him all the provisions he needed but he felt an hour of a snack and contemplation in the café would do him more good.
The aromatic Colombian coffee lifted his spirits. He ate maple syrup pancakes as he thought through his best strategy. After selecting and ascertaining what some of the gadgets did, he could take a few to a regular re-sales shop but he’d rather deal anonymously with his clients and he reckoned he’d get more money selling on the web. He lifted his coffee cup to sniff the aroma. Looking through the wisps of steam he saw a little girl staring at him. He put his cup down and smiled at her. As usually happens, she turned and ran back to mommy, who on listening to her, turned to frown at him and his yellow teeth. Just as he wondered whether to go over and apologise for smiling, a wardrobe-sized heavy sat in front of him, replacing his view of a scowling woman with one of a black beard and a baseball cap, sporting the motif – Kill.
The feeling he wasn’t as relaxed as he should became emphasised when he read the tattooed words on Kill’s knuckles. LOVE and HAT. He was missing the little finger on his left hand. Hardly able to control his mirth, Jethro decided it was time to go back to his vehicle and take one of the packages back to his room. Luckily, the silvery coffee-table size box didn’t look too much out of the ordinary if anyone saw him.
Kneeling on the thick pile carpet, he peeled back the top of the box, revealing hand-sized packages inside. His heart rocking with both fear and excitement, he took one and unwrapped it. A torch. All that trouble for a poxy little kid’s torch. Throwing it on the carpet, a blinding light told him that maybe they weren’t all toy torches.
“Whoa,” he called out and immediately shushed himself. The light dimmed but the torch still emitted the brightest light he’d seen away from a house-sized searchlight. He picked it up ensuring he pointed it down and away from his eyes. Prodding at the bumpy sides the light extinguished itself. Encouraged, he opened more packages. His delight at finding a pair of binoculars turned to dismay when he realised they saw straight through buildings; what use was that? His smile returned when he tried an earpiece. He couldn’t figure its function until a TV commentator spoke Spanish – after a few moments the earpiece fed him the translation. There were other items that appeared to do nothing although he dared not press them too much in case they operated in wavelengths he couldn’t detect, but were frying his brains.
This was even more so for the larger pointy things that were likely to be weapons. His solution was to operate a scam. No, sorry, more of a web-based lucky dip. Let the punters find out what the gadgets really did.
He set up a virtual market stall on the well-known internet shop, Obay.
Fantastic wacky gadgets
Super advanced technology
You just gotta have one
He found some science fiction images, added a link to his global pay account he used for dodgy share dealings and hovered his finger over Enter. Just in time he added the clinching pitch:
Surprise out-of-this-world gift with each purchase
Then he pressed Enter.
Oops, he forgot about the military hardware. Internet shopping regulations meant he had to make different checking arrangements for them. No sweat. Just a pretence of exercising additional security checks on clients. He accessed his website edit program and added another button with a missile icon:
Weapons Sold Separately
Of course he elaborated on linked pages: just enough to make gadget lovers drool. Half an hour and three coffees later, he split the laptop screen into two windows. The left filled with client data, the right with his accumulating account. He rubbed his hands, dived for the yellow pages and used his phone to arrange a courier service to bring postal service bags and take away his sold items.
Strangely, he felt bigger. It must be all the laughing he felt obliged to do. Back in the café, he even laughed when he barged into Kill, who, clearly worried at the bursting overconfidence of the Native American in safari clothes, backed off. Jethro settled to an all-day breakfast at 9pm, looking around for more children to smile at and scare away.
His delirium at making a mint out of his chance discovery turned to worry after the courier took away the last but one package on the third day. He didn’t think he ought to stay any longer. It wasn’t as if he had done anything really wrong. No one on the planet could claim they owned the merchandise. No one knew he’d taken them and the descriptions he gave were vague enough to prevent any buyers’ rights lawyers from taking up action against him. Even so, it was better to avoid trouble than be in the right to fight it. His motel room looked a riot of packaging material, both alien and terrestrial. His smile returned at the chaotic sight. He reached for his travel bag to throw in his toiletries and laptop before leaving when a loud thump accompanied the opening of the door.
“Jethro Zedwe?” said the man in a dark suit, backed up by armed police.
“Who wants to know?”
Another suit stepped in from hiding behind the doorway. “The government.”
Jethro sat heavily on the pile of packaging covering his bed. So much for his really good idea of stealing from aliens. He might have known the government would want it all.
“Actually, Mr Zedwe just left. I’m clearing up. If you hurry you might catch him.”
“Maybe we could drive that Winnebago outside. The one hired out to you,” said the first suit.
“All right. I am Mr Zedwe. I want a lawyer.”
“Really? You done something wrong?”
“Why else are you here?”
“We are IRS. You have a hundred thousand dollars in unpaid taxes over the last three years.”
Jethro laughed. The men snarled.
“Will you take Goldcard?”
Jethro’s mouth ached from his permanent grin all the way back to New York. He called in at his apartment to unload one last box of gadgets, kept as a keepsake, before returning the motor home to the hire company. He ruefully shook his head at the memory of his journey’s purpose. He’ll have to catch up with the spirits of his ancestors another time.
As he laced up his high-tech trainers for his regular evening jog, Jethro thought of who he might have sold the weapons to. As when he made surreptitious share dealings, he tried not to contemplate his contribution to unpleasantness somewhere on the planet. He laughed off the notion playing in his head that one of the gadgets might have been a planet buster.
He took his alien torch with him; not because he was going to run in dark places but he reckoned the bright light would be a more effective mugger-scarer than the personal alarm he carried. The sidewalk reflected the amber street lamps and made slurpy soughing noises with his jogging. Three blocks later, he approached the newsstand from which he usually bought a paper and a large bag of chips, made acceptable by the run.
“Got a light?” said a heavy male voice behind him.
“I sure have, try this,” said Jethro, turning. He pressed the side of the torch with anticipatory delight. The searchlight beam whitened the potential assailant, the sidewalk, the wall behind and probably the room behind the wall.
“Hey, I am so sorry, Reverend,” said Jethro, when he saw the man’s dog collar. He squeezed the torch but it wouldn’t turn off. As he tried harder the beam cut through the air in all directions, followed by wails, screams and car-screeches.
“Turn off, damn you,” Jethro shouted. The light stopped. Actually, it stopped about five metres away from the end of the torch, and slowly inched back into it.
The newsvendor, safe in his box, said, “Now that’s an impressive trick, mister.”
Even the reverend must have been impressed because after he’d stood from being on his back, he returned to the ground, on his knees.
More observers gathered, watching in fascination as the apparently solid white light cone retreated slowly into the torch. A minute later the end of the light-beam reached the torch, and the crowd started to dissipate, muttering. Jethro turned to apologise to the reverend, who had stood once again. But the man stared at the nearby street lamp. Jethro looked up and saw the lamp dim and fizzle out. Shards of amber light flashed from the extinguished lamp to the torch.
Jethro had a weird idea and pointed the torch at part of the nearby brick wall, which was illuminated by another light. A circle on the wall darkened until it became black. The torch sucked in light.
“That’s impossible,” said the newsvendor. The reverend fell again to his knees in supplication to his God. Some of the dissipating crowd started to return.
“Stay back,” shouted Jethro. “Suppose it isn’t just light it’s sucking up.”
“You mean it might be vacuuming electrical energy?” said one.
“Our life-force?” said another, stepping backwards. “Or maybe it is a portable black hole. Turn the fucker off.”
“I am trying to, but it won’t.” Thoughts of the other twenty he sold flashed through Jethro’s mind. Another man lifted the lid of a nearby trashcan and indicated it to Jethro, who threw the torch in.
The crowd closed in once more. Jethro glanced up at unaware passer-byes, who looked curiously at what appeared to be street-theatre until they saw the star was a trashcan. Sure enough the area immediately around the can dimmed, darkened and went black. A slowly widening circle of black spread from the trashcan.
The newsvendor said, “It can’t go on sucking light up forever, can it? It is too small. When does it run out of batteries?”
Jethro had entertained the thought of power supplies to the gadgets but assumed that somehow the aliens had worked around them.
“Don’t be stupid,” said the man who suggested the trashcan. “All that light going into the torch is its energy supply.”
They all looked at the increasing circle of dark and muttered oaths to people who weren’t backing up fast enough.
“Suppose it goes in cycles,” said the newsvendor. “Once it’s had its fill of light it goes into reverse and blasts it out again.”
Everyone nodded at the eminently sensible conservation of energy equation, and it suggested to Jethro that he might not have started a NYC or even global disaster after all. Nevertheless, the light continued to be sapped, now stretching across the road.
A police patrol car alerted them with a short siren wail.
“Excellent,” said the man who suggested the trashcan as he lifted the lid, grabbed the torch and rushed over to the open window of the police car. “Here, we want to hand in this lost property.”
“We do?” asked Jethro, who joined the rest making themselves scarce leaving the cop puzzling over the silver tube that didn’t seem to do anything.
Jethro peeped around a corner to see the cop throw it in his glove compartment as he drove off. A few moments later, the car lost all its lights and stalled. Jethro ran in the opposite direction.
Sitting at his kitchen table, cradling a glass of Bourbon, Jethro perspired partly from the run but mostly in wondering about the other gadgets he’d sold and the remainder in the box behind him. He rummaged and fished out the translating earpiece. Tuning the TV to a foreign language convinced him the translator worked fine.
He tentatively removed an object the size and look of a clothes iron. After the torch debacle, he kinda hoped it was just that. But the flat section was concave. He turned it over and a metallic voice came through his earpiece.
“Incoming missile return to sender deflector.”
Jethro smiled. A cool piece of defensive technology.
“Oh, shit.” Jethro put it on the table and sat back from it. Nothing happened but he realised nothing would until a missile headed towards it. Laughing, he crumpled up a phone bill and tossed it at the concave dish. The ball of paper stopped and shot back to Jethro’s hand.
“Wow, though it would’ve been even better to have sent my bill directly back to the Bell company. It looks like I’ll have at least a dozen satisfied customers with that one.”
He had another rummage in the box and came up with a matt-black matchbox. He put it on the table and stared at it. For all he knew it could be a tiny weapon of mass destruction or – just a matchbox. He tapped it gently with a pencil. Nothing. He lifted it and was about to open it a little when his earpiece said, “Danger. Nano-midges.”
They must be microscopic artificial flying biting insects. The sort that would get into your ears, nose, mouth and… Ugh. He threw the box at his open window. It didn’t get there. It hovered where the glass should have been and flew straight back to Jethro’s hand, which was fisted by then. So the box fell to the table. Fearing it might open and let out the nano-midges, he snatched at it, but was it too late? He sat there for a minute, staring at the box looking for any sign of ant-like creatures although he knew they might be too small for him to see. His nose tickled…
The shower was to short-circuit the little nasties, wash them out of his crevices and generally put them off, if they were on him. Logic told him that the return-to-sender-missile-deflector should have returned them to their box and maybe it had. Every itch worried him and worry produced more itching.
Checking his laptop, he found that he’d sent a matchbox as a freebie to all fifty-six customers. He developed a headache when he wondered if the damn things reproduced, what they fed on and if they can be stopped outside of their boxes. He might have been responsible for the eating away of planet Earth. He wondered how long it would take for Earth to be reduced to a cloud of crumbs.
His door intercom buzzed.
“Who is it?”
“Mr Jethro Zedwe?”
He peered at the scratchy camera image. Two men in suits.
“You are those IRS men again, aren’t you?”
“Are you going to let us in?”
Jethro released the door.
The two men were followed by two grimmer-looking men.
“Did you want more of my money?”
“We are agents from the International Trade branch of the FBI. I am Mr Grant. Trying to bribe government officials, Mr Zedwe. That’s very serious. Make a note, Mr Green.”
“I meant it to cover any tax deficit.”
“We are not interested in your sordid little tax situation, Mr Zedwe. We want to know where you acquired shed-loads of foreign electronic goods. Where’s your import licence? We believe some have come from embargoed countries. Are those some of them, there?”
“What? I found them and so I don’t need any licence and I assure you they haven’t come from any embargoed country. Oi, don’t touch them. They’re dangerous.”
“Really, Mr Zedwe?” said Mr Green, grabbing what appeared to be a plastic orange out of the box of gadgets. Suddenly the orange expanded and enveloped him.
Mr Green could be seen through the translucent skin, panicking as if he couldn’t breathe.
“Interesting,” said Mr Grant, as his hand couldn’t penetrate the envelope. “Calm down, Mr Green, you’ll be fine. Breathe slowly. And you, Mr Zedwe, say this force field, or whatever it is, isn’t from a foreign country?”
Jethro stood, mouth open, which is what Mr Green was doing but without taking in air. The earpiece, still in his ear, was repeating a phrase. “Malfunction, air exchange inoperable. Returning to standby mode.”
“No,” shouted Jethro, thinking that the orange envelope will shrink-wrap Mr Green.
“No, what?” said Mr Grant, drawing a firearm from inside his jacket. In response the other men did the same. It seemed to give an oxygenation idea to Mr Green who drew his gun, pointed it at the ceiling and fired.
“No,” shouted Jethro, but no one could hear as in the noise and confusion the bullet from Mr Green’s gun went through the envelope, turned and went into the left shoulder of the agent behind Mr Grant. Assuming they were under attack, the other agent behind Mr Grant fired his gun at Jethro. The bullet stopped and headed out of the window.
“Missile deflector malfunction, source co-ordinates unascertainable,” said the earpiece. Jethro groaned, thinking of all the bullets, rockets, and projected items being deflected in random directions by these faulty gadgets he’d sold.
Mr Green fired again within his envelope. This time the bullet ricocheted around inside the orange, which had started shrinking. It was like watching a large animated model of electrons randomly orbiting a nucleus. He would have screamed but he was asphyxiating by both lack of air and being shrink-wrapped.
Jethro could see that the awful sight, and the wounding of the agent shocked the others into silence. They didn’t know who or what to fire at.
The door intercom buzzed again but no one felt obliged to respond to it. A few more buzzes and it stopped. The door slowly opened revealing two women in Armani suits.
“Attention people,” said the earpiece, although only Jethro could hear it. “One of you have our merchandise. We have come to reclaim.”
“Hey,” said Jethro. “I found those gadgets in the desert. Anyone could have found them and hurt themselves or other people.”
One of the “women” smiled in a robotic jerky fashion. “We thank you for safe keeping of the merchandise, but they are faulty goods on their way to be repaired. The malfunction on the return-to-sender missile deflector activated itself and caused the unmanned cargo ship to deviate from its journey and…”
“Just a minute,” said Jethro. “Where is the planet you are from, and where is the repair depot the cargo ship was headed for?”
“We are not obliged to answer you,” said the “woman”.
“Fine, then I shan’t tell you where all the gadgets are,” said Jethro, hoping his involuntary glance at his laptop hadn’t given himself away.
“The ship has been travelling for many years.”
“And the repair depot?” said Jethro, hoping a local base might offer a trading opportunity.
“Back on our planet. The malfunction occurred while in sub-orbit flight from one continent to the other.”
“What? You mean the cargo ship went off course for zillions of miles, for decades? Why did it come here?”
“Your planet accidentally intercepted the ship. The navigation system malfunctioned. The ship has been in orbit around your planet for centuries before coming down a few days ago.”
“Doesn’t anything work properly? Your faulty goods are probably killing people and destroying our planet as we chat away here. I – we – need compensation.”
“We wish you to hurry, we have to go back to our home. Our home…”
At that moment the earpiece fell out of Jethro’s ear.
“Say that again please?” he said.
“Gwananaa,” the alien said, in perfect Shoshone. “Gwananaa.”
Geoff Nelder © 2014
Geoff’s UK Amazon author page http://www.amazon.co.uk/Geoff-Nelder/e/B002BMB2XY
And for US readers http://www.amazon.com/Geoff-Nelder/e/B002BMB2XY
Geoff facebooks at http://www.facebook.com/AriaTrilogy and tweets at @geoffnelder