The Other California Incident
Signaling to nobody, Rilke turned onto the state route from the gravel access road he and Kyle had taken to reach their hiking trails in the Santa Cruz mountains. One minute, the highway sprawled out before him, plodding along through the California sunset, weaving in and out of hills, the way two-lane roads will when they’re in no hurry to get anywhere, big and empty and eager for him to drive across it. The next, a cigar-shaped UFO plummeted to the pavement in front of the car so fast he wondered if he should reevaluate his position on the viability of matter transportation.
He slammed on the brakes and swerved to the right, erring on the mountain-side of the street instead of the side that sloped downhill into the abyss. They skidded into the slight berm and stopped with their wheels questionably engaged, but he’d avoided the glowing craft. It bobbed a few feet above the ground, emitting a chartreuse light.
Kyle flailed his arms, sending the exaggerated strawberry hanging from the rearview mirror into a sympathetic fit as a torrent of obscenities flowed from him, but Rilke was beyond hearing and his attention was focused on the spaceship outside. With his mouth and eyes wide open, he exited in a trance.
As he circled the enigmatic vehicle, he fought to keep his awe in check and regain control of his brain’s higher functions. He tried to note the pertinent information without getting overwhelmed, but everything from Roswell to Rendlesham Forest to the Varginha Incident was flooding his mind simultaneously. It wasn’t the lost time phenomenon, but in the inevitable interviews to come, would he be able to admit to reporters how long he’d wandered around dumbfounded?
After he’d explored three-quarters of the craft, he was ready to conclude that there were no mysterious markings vaguely resembling hieroglyphics when Kyle called, “Dude! What the hell are you doing?”
“I… am investigating this flying saucer,” he answered in a voice so spacy it could have originated from somewhere between Jupiter and Pluto, “I’ve been waiting for this my whole life.” When tone of the question traveled the astronomical units and caught up with him, he tore himself away to look back and see that Kyle had not left the car but was calling out from a cracked window.
Before he could berate his friend for his disappointing and unscientific lack of curiosity, the vehicle made the first sounds they’d heard: a whirring noise that, thanks to Star Trek, sounded like glitter twinkling in a glass of water. There was a flash and a small being was deposited on the ground. It seemed less akin to the strobe-lit effects of the over-dramatized recreations he’d seen so many times than an unseen hatch opening and closing to the bright white light of an interior so quick as to be almost imperceptible.
The gray alien swayed in an unsteady circle and its legs buckled. Rilke grasped it under one arm to save it from falling, but its slight weight sagged on his shoulder. Its enormous eyes clouded and its head rolled. Once he saw the humanoid in an obvious state of distress, Kyle could no longer remain idle. They carried the stranger between them frat-boy style and slid it through the opened door into the backseat. It was conscious, but the injuries seemed serious.
“Alright, man,” Kyle’s intention to hold his companion accountable for their involvement was apparent. “Now what? Do we take it to a hospital? The police?”
“No, dude, you can’t notify the authorities! If the part about Dulce base and the secret alien task force isn’t true, they’ll dissect it. In any case, they’ll disappear it and no one will even know! We have to help it ourselves.”
“We should help the little green man all by ourselves? And then what? Hide the UFO?” Kyle was already yelling; stress always brought out his anger.
“Yeah!” Rilke agreed. “How could we do that? I’m surprised the black helicopters aren’t here yet. Maybe that’s a good sign, like it crashed undetected and they’re not coming.”
“What do you think you’re going to do? Fly a spaceship?” Kyle smacked the side of the craft to prove his point. The vehicle was propelled forward, buoyed on its cushion of air.
They looked at each other, at the flying saucer, and back at each other, transcending into cartoon-mode in an effort to comprehend. “Or when the alien wrecked, it forgot to put on the parking brake?” Kyle ventured.
“So all we have to do is push the spaceship a little way up the street and down the trail, into that first canyon?” Rilke grinned wickedly.
“You want to hide a flying saucer on our hiking trail?” The corners of Kyle’s mouth were rising up despite his best efforts to convey the gravity of the situation.
“I don’t want to leave it in the middle of the road,” Rilke clarified. “We’re the only people who ever go there. Besides, what’s your better plan?” He grabbed his arms and feigned seriousness. “Unless you’re suddenly obsessed with a long series of ones and zeros? Binary code?”
“What? No, I am not thinking about binary code. What does that have to do with anything?”
Rilke laughed. “Nothing; I knew that part was bullshit. You drive our friend and I’ll push until we get to the parking lot. C’mon, hurry up! We’re racing against Groups within Groups!”
Without interruption from men in suits smoking cigarettes or making assertions about the planet Venus, Rilke and Kyle hid the UFO in the narrow recesses of the ravine walls. The phosphorescence they attempted to conceal with rocks and foliage. The car finally forged beyond that stretch of highway and reached its destination: the cozy concrete pad outside a modest bungalow in College Terrace rented by its human occupants and into which its nonhuman occupant was ushered under cover of darkness and a Stanford hoodie.
Rilke bolted upright in his desk chair at the sound of rustling sheets. When they’d gotten home the night before, the alien had been fading in and out of consciousness, so there had been nothing to do but wait for it to wake up. The soft light of the early hours was coming in the windows and his visitor was sitting up in his bed, taking in his selection of band posters, so he must have fallen asleep keeping watch over vitals he couldn’t comprehend.
The gray was steadier this morning. It wasn’t as grotesque as the paraphernalia depicted, but its features, including the elongated fingers balling his comforter into knots, were far from human. He waited for the small face dominated by blank black eyes to pivot around to him; the being studied the Hermit’s lantern on Led Zeppelin as though the flames held the ultimate question of the universe whose answer is forty-two.
Its fascination didn’t end, so he cleared his throat and gently probed, “How do you feel today?”
The extraterrestrial turned toward him, and he regretted speaking. Waves of pressure pounded inside his skull so intense he curled into the fetal position, hoping to stop them, while a myriad of emotions strong enough to make him vomit undulated through his body. He had to concentrate to identify any of them, but he soon recognized a feeling of pain lessening. From there, a pattern emerged: a continuous loop of the same sensations, relief interspersed with the nebulous others he couldn’t quite interpret. The alien was communicating telepathically.
He put up his hands in what he hoped was the universal gesture to knock it off. “That was too loud and too fast. All I understood is you don’t hurt as much, which is great. Tell me the rest again, but slower.”
This time, more comprehensible ideas presented themselves. The night’s events from Gray’s point of view: the unexpected peaks and turns of the mountains streamed across the ship’s visual display with the road snaking between them and the rusty-red roof of his Saturn growing from a meaningless pixel to an obstacle it had narrowly missed. Beside the screen, a panel had flashed that indicated a failure. The script was like trying to read in a dream; he didn’t know what the strange symbol meant, but if he focused on it, the meaning would become clear. Next came anxiety coupled with visualizations of the outside of the UFO in extreme detail Rilke hadn’t been able to imagine: there was a faint groove marking each line of symmetry etched into the hull; the glow that emanated from it changed colors with its speed; and it had the interstellar equivalent of a hood, or rather, he saw a hatch which he knew lead to the inner workings of the craft and Gray felt desperate to open.
“Your ship is safe,” Rilke reassured it. “Or at least it was. Kyle and I hid it in a ravine near the crash site.” Having recalled his friend and created sufficient pretext, he banged on the adjoining wall and called out into the hallway, hoping to wake him up.
After Gray’s transmissions had progressed from thanks to reminders of the tantalizing symbols begging to be dream-read, Kyle materialized in the doorway in his pajamas, rubbing away the last symptoms of sleep.
“I saw! Something onboard is broken. We want to help you fix it.” Rilke paced when he spoke to keep from twirling and dropping into the three-point comic book hero landing stance, “Ok, so, I’m on the Rockets team in SSI, that’s Space Science Initiative at Stanford, and we’ve had some amazing breakthroughs—which I guess wouldn’t sound very impressive to you—but I have access to the lab and we get to play with awesome equipment.”
Kyle sprang to life and was pulled into the melodrama. His skill-set came out sounding like a bulleted list and as he gesticulated to animate his points, he gave the impression that in his estimation, each item was a weapon enchanted to increase a character’s stats. “I’m a senior chemistry student and I started an internship with Baychem last semester. I can work on my own projects in the campus labs pretty much unsupervised. And I volunteered with Meals on Wheels for two years in high school.”
“Basically, you’ve come to the right place,” Rilke concluded. “Besides Kennedy Space Center, of anywhere on Earth you could have picked to crash, we probably have the best resources to help you. And flying straight to NASA would have been like handing yourself over to the Empire. There’s no chance that we are going to dissect you.”
This culminated in a pregnant pause; Rilke and Kyle beamed smiling at Gray, accommodating and expectant and waiting for it to choose from among the impressive qualifications they planned to list on future resumes, while the extraterrestrial took its turn to process an abundance of confusing information that came in too quickly.