Coffee and Aliens
by Adira Rotstein
Midnight, the day after Christmas, and I was still stuck in town. When I was a kid, at this time of year, I'd always beg Mom and Dad to take us to Florida, but they were never too keen on it. Too full of other Canadians, Mom used to say. Not that it mattered now. With so many student loans to pay off, it seemed unlikely I'd ever be able to afford a vacation in the sun again.
I wished I was with Sung-Woo, the other lab assistant. He was on a cruise in the Bahamas with his close-knit Korean family. Just thinking about Song brought a flush to my cheeks. He had these unbelievably high cheekbones and his eyebrows were like brush strokes of dark ink. I wondered if his hair felt as silky as it looked. Alone in the lab, I caught myself thinking of his smooth, golden-hued skin under my hands, yielding to my touch. Looking in the bathroom mirror on the third floor, I imagined his dark eyes starring back out at me, his face burying itself in the curve of my neck, kissing its way up and across to my mouth.
As you can see, the problem with me working in the bio-lab alone over the holidays, was that it gave me way too much time to think about things that would probably never happen. It was also vaguely creepy, especially late at night. If anyone else was still in the Ramsay Wright Zoological Laboratories building then, I couldn't tell. I had my own special key to let me in. I needed to feed the 115 betta splendins fighting fish in the lab and change their water. The experiment we were preforming also required them to be exposed to experimental stimuli on a regular basis.
“Experimental Stimuli” sounds cool, but all it really meant was that every few days we showed them pictures of other fish, to see if repeat exposure would eventually turn them aggressive or desensitize them to the threat. We had 115 Siamese fighting fish. Betta splendens to those in the know. So far they seemed more fearful than aggressive, but with fish it's hard to tell. They don't exactly have facial expressions, no matter what you saw in “Finding Nemo.” Most of the time the bettas kept themselves busy building bubble nests for female partners who'd never arrive. Luckily, they never seemed to realize that the sausage party was permanent or I might have had a revolt on my hands. Their food consisted of brown pellets called “Betta Gold.” Maybe the pellets looked like gold to the bettas, but I thought they looked more like mouse droppings. At least they actually ate the pellets, something which could not be said of the dried bloodworms which formerly composed their diet.
All the bettas in the lab were kept in separate jars, protected from seeing one another by cardboard partitions. Apparently, if you kept two males in a jar together they'd kill each other. Even without the underwater gladiator matches, they still managed to die off pretty quickly. I wondered if Professor Lancashire would be angry to see their depleted numbers when she got back from her research tour in the Galapagos.
At the time, I was contemplating whether or not I should apply for the Masters Zoology program. It would mean two more years of deadlines and boring school assignments like this one. Not appealing, but what was the alternative? I tried to balance it in my head against my experience of work in the real world, none of it very encouraging. I'd been fired, no joke, from every job I ever had for either lateness or sleepiness or a combination of the two. What could I actually do anyway?
Maybe I could teach English abroad like my friend Sandra was planning to do. You could do that if you had a BA, or did it have to be a BA in English only? I couldn't remember. It might be lonely, living in a country where no one knew or understood me. Not that I was exactly surrounded by friends here in Toronto. How was it possible to live in a city for twenty-three years without accumulating a group of friends to hang out with? How had that happened to me? Was I really that uninteresting?
It was long past time for me to go home one night, but I always needed a coffee before driving late. I took the elevator down to the basement where I remembered spotting a coffee machine a few weeks back.
In the basement, without a single window to let in light from the streetlamps outside everything was pitch black. The nauseating reek of formaldehyde was overpowering, too. I touched the wall in the dark, but couldn't find the light switch. My footsteps sounded unnaturally loud in the empty hallway as I felt my way along. Clump, clump, clump went my boots on the tiled floor. I had a mini-light on my keychain which I eventually remembered. Once I turned the keylight on to guide my way, it wasn't so bad. Phone and coffee machine were positioned next to each other across from the cafeteria. The cafeteria, in another brilliant design move by the mad architects of the University of Toronto, was situated right across from the main dissection lab.
My keylight picked up a light switch. With a press of a button, three fluorescent tube lights flickered hesitantly to life far down the corridor. I heard the sound of like something small scuttle close by and shivered. I hate rodents and Ramsay Wright is full of them. I've seen three dead mice in the stairwell alone, since vacation started.
They're not escapees from the experimental lab, if that's what you're thinking. People hear the phrase “animal labs” and wrongly assume we're experimenting on cuddly little mammals. In truth, most of our experimental “animals” are insects, with a few lucky fish and frogs thrown in for good measure. Nearly everyone ends up working with fruit flies. They have extra-large chromosomes, breed quickly and are cheap to buy and take care of.
We don't have the budget, the profs say, for rats and guinea pigs. I'm still puzzled at where the money is spent in the zoology department. Other departments seem to afford fresh equipment. Chemistry and medicine have shiny new microscopes and computers; geology has a brand new building for Christ's sake. Here in Zoology, it seems like our digs and equipment haven't changed since Darwin's time. Ramsay Wright's almost fully automated security system however is top notch, no expenses spared there. The caretaker, who I met just the once, told me this building's had more attempted break-ins than any other on campus. I honestly had no idea. Probably, animal rights activists, “Free the Fruit-flies” or whatever.
At least that's what I used to think until Robert set me straight, but now I'm getting ahead of myself.
I held up my keylight as I continued down the dark basement corridor. The beam bounced down the hallway. The light fell on an odd, upright shape in the corridor. I froze. There was someone else down there with me, an indistinct form, half in shadow, partially silhouetted by the light beam. The stranger stood by the coffee machine I had intended to use.
I jumped back on full alert. Could it be one of the prospective thieves the caretaker told me about? I glanced around quickly, looking for anything I might use to defend myself. I squinted through the gloom at the intruder, but he seemed unaware of me, making no move to attack or flee. I walked forward again, moving towards the intruder, rather than away.
The person at the machine looked no bigger than a child. The stranger was short, with an odd bulky shape to him. He still didn't turn around to look at me, seeming to ignore the light completely, only ducking away from the beam at the last moment, before I could get a good look at him. Now he was popping coins into the machine, making odd whistling noises like a demented kettle.
I thought maybe he was blind or mentally ill. That could explain why he hadn't noticed my light. He could be a midget or a child, short as he was. I figured he was probably a homeless person. I knew I was the only who came to the lab at night over vacation. A student working on a project or a member of the janitorial staff wouldn't be hiding from me in the dark. There were a lot of homeless people in the area and it was far below freezing outside. Maybe instead of going to a shelter, this person found some way inside the building. Well, I certainly wouldn't turn out someone like that, especially on such a freezing night. If he wanted to stay it was okay by me. All the experimental labs were locked up anyway. I didn't want to scare him away, but I'd need to talk to him if I wanted my coffee, and I did want my coffee.
“Hello? Excuse me?” my voice echoed down the hall.
The person at the coffee machine stopped putting his coins in and turned towards me. Only then did I realize that he wasn't a homeless man or any sort of a man at all. He-- it was a... a what exactly? Some sort of creature, that's all I could think to call it. It was about four and a half feet tall, covered in little rubbery white tube-like protrusions that made me think of a giant sea anemone. The projections waved timorously in the air at me, as if ruffled by an invisible breeze.
I did not scream. Sensibly, I managed to keep one hand clamped over my mouth and the other still on my keylight.
Four large, green and pink eyes featuring rapidly dilating, bar-shaped pupils, gazed up at me from a wedge-shaped structure perched on a scrawny, wizened neck. Around that skinny neck, incongruous on such an alien creature, dangled an ordinary blue and white U of T lanyard. It was nearly identical to the one in my hand, the one with the key to the building attached to the clip. The only difference was that instead of a key dangling from the clip, the creature's clip was attached to a machine that looked like a miniature 1980's boombox. There were tiny speakers on the sides and buttons on the square black part in the middle, but no shallow little drawer for CDs.
The creature blinked its pink and green eyes at me and whistled. This time I distinctly saw one of the buttons on the boombox glow.
“Coffee,” said the flat, robotic voice that emerged from the speakers.
The coffee machine clattered suddenly to life, to startling me. The rattling sound of the mechanism inside seemed to fill the whole floor. Then the machine pissed out its familiar watery brown liquid into the cup below, just as if it was held by an ordinary undergraduate, rather than some alien mutant creature thing.
The creature whistled again and waved its long, tubular feelers in a vague motion at the coffee machine. “Coffee? You want?” the voicebox translated a moment later.
To my complete and utter shock, I found myself speaking up in reply, saying “It's okay, you go first.” Unbelievably, I managed to come out sounding like I was having a dull conversation with another student in the coffee line at lunch. Unable to fully parse what I had seen, my reflexive Canadian politeness kicked in without conscious thought! Creepy.
As I continued to stare, the full coffee cup was buoyed up by the creature's pale tubular projections. The projections retracted into the rest of the swaying mass, curling in on themselves, like the fronds of some odd, anemic fern. There was a strange slurping noise from within the waving mass. Somewhere within a mouth I couldn't see was slurping up the dregs of the drink. There was a crunch of Styrofoam and the pale feelers emerged again with the crumpled styrofoam cup held amongst them. There was a slight shifting of the creature's weight, so that now its feelers hung over the garbage bin. The protrusions unclenched spasmodically and the cup dropped down to land upon a small mountain of its identical brothers below.
The creature whistled, more shrilly this time. “One coffee with me please?” came the robotic voice from the mini-boombox. I could swear that that weird, flat voice sounded wistful somehow. Now the creature began to move forward slightly, whistling and humming. “Coffee, please with me,” said that sinister robot voice as the creature came on.
It wasn't hard to get scared. It may sound silly now, but anyone would've felt that way being on the spot like I was. As it moved towards me, whistle-humming something in a different key than before, an image of deadly Dalek plungers sucking the life out of human faces clouded my mind. My heart kicked up in my chest and adrenalin flooded my system.
Suddenly, I was running like the devil himself was after me, all the way up the stairs and out the door to the street. It must have been minus something fierce Celsius outside, but the thought of going back to my lab for my jacket turned my blood even colder.
I don't remember getting in the car or pulling out into the street. I didn't really start breathing semi-properly again until I hit a red light on St. Clair Avenue. I had a close call with a van that nearly side-swiped me at the cross section of Avenue Road and Lawrence, but somehow I made it home.
I lay in the darkness of my bedroom, shivering under my comforter. There's no way. Just no way! It didn't make sense! I couldn't possibly have seen what I thought I saw. And what exactly was that anyway? Just trying to describe the way it looked to myself in my head-- I couldn't find the words to depict it in any way that made sense. There were no human words for it. What were those things it used to grab the coffee cup? Limbs, tentacles, plant fronds-- what? No, none of those-- nothing like anything I'd ever seen in a Zoology textbook, body parts like I swear no body on Earth has ever possessed.
Maybe I'd gotten too tired and dreamed it all, I thought, grasping at something that made a little bit of sense, at least. Lose enough sleep and your dreams can have an eerie way of fusing with your real life. It's happened to me before. Yes, that was the only explanation. I'd half-dreamed the whole thing in my sleep deprived state. I worked on convincing my mind, which inexplicably seemed dead set on believing in what it thought it saw.
I went over it again and again, never finding a solution that satisfied me. Under the covers my thoughts cycled through every hypothesis I could think of. What was the likelihood of an alien actually landing on Earth without anyone noticing? What was the likelihood of aliens even existing in the first place? There was some sort of theorem about it I remembered, from Prof. Garrison's “Life on Other Worlds” class. What was it again? Drake's Equation? Did it matter? It was far far more likely, statistically speaking, that there was no creature and I was simply going insane. After all, there were millions more documented cases of humans going postal than scientifically confirmed alien sightings. But I was so certain I'd really seen it!
“No, no,” I tried to tell myself. “Just because a person looks at an oddly shaped cloud and sees a face, doesn't mean a face is there. It's just the human brain's software, programmed to look for faces. If I was going crazy, would I begin to see horrors coming out of people's heads next? The upshot of all this intensive speculation was that by the time I'd fallen into a fitful slumber, I was far more frightened of my own impending insanity than of anything I seen in the basement of the bio lab.
I awoke at noon the next day to the fresh clarity of a cold and sunny winter morning. Within moments I labeled the whole thing a complete waste of time. Whether it was sleep deprivation, insanity, mutation or alien visitation, I had work to do and that had to take precedent. The most sensible course of action was just to get on with it and ignore whatever the hell had happened the night before. What could I actually do about it anyway? Until I had further proof, I wasn't going to speculate on any of it. Maybe it was just some weird blip in reality, that didn't concern me.
Two days later I returned to the Ramsay Wright Labs to feed the fish. Some of the jars also needed changing. As the dull task of replacing half a jar's old water with new for all those separate jars of fish dragged on, night fell outside the lab. It would be time to go home soon, but I desperately needed coffee in order to keep myself awake at the wheel. After changing the water in seventy jars, I was beginning to feel reckless. The more I thought about it, the more laughable the whole basement monster business began to seem. I was supposed to be a scientist and yet here I was, afraid of bogey men in the dark. It was embarrassing really.
With these noble thoughts foremost in my mind, I went down to the basement again, promising myself I would not return without my customary cup of coffee and a bag of M & Ms.
I proceeded to the vending machine first. Candy was purchased without incident, although they had run out of M & M's and I had to make do with a Snickers. Now for the coffee.
I took a deep breath and went down the hall, glad all the lights had been left on for a change. I put in my money, sweating slightly as the coins clunked in. The coffee came out in the cup. I took it. I drank it. I went back upstairs. I cleaned the fish lab. I went home.
I told myself this confirmed my theory. My encounter with the creature had been a hallucination brought on by lack of sleep and nothing more.
Firm in my new convictions, I returned to Ramsay Wright Labs the next day to expose the fish to their experimental stimuli. I was so cocksure, I didn't even check to make sure I brought my keylight when I went down for coffee again around midnight. It was very dark, with just a flickering fluorescent bulb way down the hall to provide illumination.
“Who turned out the lights?” I wondered. “The janitor, idiot,” I told myself. From the glare coming off the metal of the coffee machine mounted on the wall, I could tell where it was, through the dark. Strangely enough, the machine looked like it had just been turned on. It clicked a styrofoam cup into place as I walked towards it. I glimpsed a vague suggestion of startled pale feelers and then the cup knocked over and fell to the ground, just as the hot coffee started streaming out of the nozzle.
There was a whistling sound, like a tea kettle on full boil.
The flat, artificial voice that I'd been dreading, came to me from out of the darkness.
“Shit,” it said.
Before I had a chance to really think, I was talking again. “Hey, you all right there? Here let me help you, okay?” I bent down to pick up the cup. While the panicky part of my brain screamed in my head, “What the hell are you doing?” I put in my coins and a new cup popped out of the dispenser. I placed it on the plastic grate underneath the nozzle and watched the coffee come out, all the while aware of the creature's eyes on my back, those strange barred pupils of pink and green, starring through my Varsity Blues sweatshirt. My skin practically crawling, I hastily thrust the cup, now full, at the creature.
“Here,” I said, with a shiver.
Its feelers stretched out, pale white and glowing with faint iridescence, coming towards me in the darkness. Desperately, I tried not to flinch. There was no way I could hold the cup out without at least one of those wiggling things coming in contact with my hand in some way. I'd have to actually touch it! I made myself stand still and closed my eyes. The moment of contact was mercifully brief and not at all unpleasant. I felt the slight nudge of something warm and moist, like several tiny hot water bottles touching me for a second. The creature took the cup with a whistle and began to drink.
“Thank you,” said the boombox.
It struck me as unbelievably odd to hear the sounds of its slurping over the stilted voice still speaking. Once again, I couldn't see its mouth, only the many appendages turning inward on themselves. Its drinking was over more quickly than a human could swallow such hot coffee. When the slurping was done, it crushed the cup once more and expelled it from among its waving protrusions with an airy little POP! The cup popped straight out into the bin, the creature efficiently cutting out the step of removing it from its mouth with its feelers and awkwardly dropping it in the garbage.
I starred at it in awe, still thrilling from its touch. Upon closer inspection, I saw there was nothing disgusting about it all. Actually, it was quite beautiful in an unsettling sort of way. Oddly, I was reminded of the time my parents took me to see the dolphin show at Marineland when I turned ten. I didn't know beforehand, but my parents tipped off the people at the show that it was my birthday. When it was time to call somebody down out of the audience to touch the dolphin I was chosen. I walked down from the seats without hesitation as the dolphin slid itself out of the water, up onto the platform, tail in the air for balance. I hadn't realized it would be so huge. The dolphin was more than three times as long as I was high. Nervously, I looked at its eyes and this reasssured me. The dolphin's eyes seemed strangely soft and brown. There were whites to them just like in human eyes. Gently, I touched the dolphin's fluke. It was slick and slippery and felt absolutely wonderful to the touch. It was nothing like petting a dog on permission from its owner. Maybe the creature was only trained to do so, but I felt as if the dolphin itself was giving me permission to touch it and this touch was something I knew had to be done with the greatest reverence and respect. I pulled back after I stroked it. I watched its deep brown eyes looking back at me. I suddenly had the weird sensation that I was being contemplated by something, no someone, with intelligent curiosity, looking at me, thinking about me, in the same way I was looking at it. “What did the dolphin think when it looked at me?” I couldn't stop wondering.
That was the first time it occurred to me that there might be intelligences out there other than human ones. I returned from that trip, knowing in my heart that that's what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to try to understand those nonhuman intelligences whatever they might be. It didn't take a university acceptance to make me a student of Zoology. I was a zoologist at heart from that point on.
I wonder how many other Zoology students had experienced similar rushes of sympathy for animal consciousness, if that was why they too had been attracted to the field. How many of them now found themselves boxed into some useless micro-specialty that had nothing to do with their original interests? Was that what fate in store for all of us? To start out as a student, eager to study the whole of the wonder and majesty of the biological world, only to wake up a few years later as some obscure national specialist in the lower thorax portion of dropsilla melongaster. I wasn't sure exactly when I'd lost perspective, but it had happened, as sure as a chromosome eventually hits the Hayflick Limit. Deep down, I knew the truth; that know the truth; that this fish research I was doing was far less fulfilling than sitting on the couch a child, wondering what the family cat was dreaming when its legs twitched in its sleep.
What was I doing here anyway? Was I really learning anything of importance to my future? Other people tend to forget their past emotions over time. Not me. It's my blessing and my curse. I always remember how I felt in the past and not with the dismissive sense of people who were fickle in their youth. That little girl I was is always with me, judging the inferior creature I had turned into. How was it possible that with no effort at all, I had been so much wiser about life in so many ways back then? Or perhaps it just seemed that way to me now. I was good at being a child. For a career as an adult though, it seemed different skills were required, skills I had never been interested in acquiring before. It is hard to move ahead when you feel like your happiest times are behind you. Sometimes when I get down, I go to Marineland in my imagination and that encounter with the dolphin that started it all, like James Taylor “Going to Carolina” in his mind. Somewhere in my soul I try to keep that inquisitiveness and amazement alive, hoping someday I'll get the opportunity to use it in the service of my scientific career as an adult. Today seemed as good a day to start as any other.
“Just be relaxed and open to it,” I advised myself. “Don't worry about anything. There's no reason to.” The creature was just another intelligence, that was all. All it seemed to want was to talk anyway. Talk and drink coffee. Not such alien desires when you think about it.
“Who are you?” I asked the creature as it slurped its coffee. The whistling voice, I saw now, came from a series of tiny openings on the sides of its head where a human's ears would be. It stopped and unstopped these openings in rapid succession. There was a slight delay and the bass male voice of the boombox, so different in comparison to its owner’s high pitched notes, said, “Visitor.”
“Visitor? Visitor from where?” I asked.
It whistled some more. “Planet different. Other place, not here,” translated the toneless boombox voice.
“So you’re—you’re saying—you’re an alien?” Somehow, I had expected as much. I shouldn't have felt so surprised, but it all still seem too unreal.
“Yes,” it said modestly.
“And what—what are you doing here?”
“Getting coffee. Obviousness.”
Hmmm... did I detect a note of exasperation there?
“You? You too want coffee?” It was holding out some change now with those moist pale projections that passed for its hands or fingers, maybe.
“Uh, okay. Thanks.”
I bought my coffee. I held the cup as it came out, all the while trying to think of what to say, what to ask, my mind drawing an embarrassing blank. My inquiry when it came, was baldly obvious. Why had it taken me so long to think of it? “What are you doing here?” I asked.
It looked at me with those strange barred pupils, unblinking. “Coffee. Needed. Drinks. Good. Enjoyment is had at low expense.”
I laughed nervously. It was beginning to sound like a Japanese soft drink advertisement!
“Uh, I mean, what are you doing here, on Earth, at U of T in the Ramsay Wright labs? Heh, you didn't come thousands of light years from wherever you're from to drink this crappy coffee, right?” I tried to be keep it light.
“Visiting Earth,” it said sadly. “Landing unscheduled. Time passing.”
“Really? But that's-- that's amazing! Time passing? How long exactly have you been here?”
The creature paused for a while and I wondered if he was trying to do figures in that odd triangular head of his. Was his brain triangular as well? Weird, exciting images of alien neurological structures whizzed through my consciousness. The whistling voice answered, “Two score rotation of--, untranslatable--, twenty-two years of here, of Earth. Yes.”
I goggled at him. “You mean you’ve been here—in the basement of the bio lab... For twenty-two years?” The smell of formaldehyde clouded my nostrils. How could the alien stand it? How could any creature, no matter how strange, stand being confined to this awful place for all that time?
“Yes,” said the creature. “There was—“
But I never learned what “there was” because a noise came out of the boombox. It seemed to be a pre-recorded message in the creature's own whistle-speak. The alien's feelers began to move rapidly then, like blades of long grass blown about by a strong wind. To my untrained eye, the movement seemed to communicate a state of agitation. The creature whistled back to the boombox. I thought its whistles shorter, more shrill in tone. Later, I wondered if the message from the box might have been some sort of order from whoever was keeping the creature, prerecorded in the being's own language. I had no idea who contacted him. It might have been an automated message for all I know. The creepy thing was, it could just as easily have been someone I'd seen about the building every day during term, in the cafeteria or in lecture. Another anonymous face in line for the coffee machine who just happened to have a night gig as an alien jailer. Wild.
“Yes, going now,” came the unhurried robotic translation of the creature's shrill whistles. “Just get coffee. Come now back. Yes, yes.”
I watched the alien walk away towards the dark part of the hallway. I could see no legs below its scrawny neck, just a fleshy sort of bell, like a long skirt, going from the bottom of its triangular “chin” down to the floor, all of it covered in those ubiquitous pale feelers. I wondered what sort of apparatus for locomotion it had under there-- tentacles, wheels, legs or something else entirely different? Its skin changed rapidly to match the gloom in the darker part of the hallway. Its iridescent glow vanished. I was just about to chase after it, when I heard the sound of a metal door opening somewhere off down the hall. A slice of light burst into the corridor for a moment, and then, the creature was gone.
I stood there, quietly trembling as the corridor returned to its former silence. No one opened the door again. No one came to investigate. I remained there, just standing for some time. I wasn't frozen with fear, if that's what you're thinking. Oddly enough it seemed my fear had disappeared with the closing of that door. Instead, I found myself suddenly elated. I felt like every cell in my body was standing at attention, alert and ready for action and an excited shiver passed through my body like an electric current.
I drove home feeling more awake than I'd felt for months, as if the past week had been nothing, but the foggy remembrance of a dream. A long time ago everything had seemed possible, I thought. When people asked me as a small child, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I used to say “a Snowman” with perfect seriousness. Now I know that that was silly, but had there been things of value thrown out with the silly box in my shift to adulthood that should never have been there in the first place?
Meeting the alien had changed me, but not in any supernatural way. Unexpectedly, the world had become full of possibilities again to me. That's what makes science great, isn't it? I love the element of surprise. Zoology is like that, with all its weird explanations for the ordinary and quite ordinary explanations for the weird. There can be no useless traditions here. True scientists are rebels and usurpers. We tear down the false theories of the past with their creator's blessings.
If even our pokey little university lab could contain so much hidden mystery, what other craziness could exist in outer space? A universe that could've made the creature in the basement must surely contain things stranger in heaven and earth than those dreamnt of in the profs' imaginations.
As amazing as the encounter was, I was not on the phone the next day telling my stories to the newspapers. No, not even the National Enquirer. I might have made a nice chunk of change that way, who knows? I did think about it, but never seriously. The thought of calling a newspaper I wouldn't deign to look twice at in the supermarket to report a find of such importance, seemed too disrespectful somehow. Really, it should be written up in a reputable zoological journal. Of course, if I ever planned to write anything about it, I'd have to seriously observe it, take some field notes, etc. That's what a real zoologist would do. You had to be almost a hundred percent certain about what you had, before breaking it to the wider scientific body.
Meanwhile, I enjoyed having such a wonderful secret to savor. I held it warm in my soul, my talisman against the everyday world as I walked down Yonge Street. I looked in at the post-Christmas sales, feeling incongruously awake and dangerous. The sky was a brilliant, cloudless blue, as it always is on the coldest days of winter, as I crossed Bay Street and ambled leisurely over to the university.
Crossing the quadrangle of University College I saw the snow-covered playing field sparkle with a pinkish tinge in the sun's setting glare. Convocation Hall hovered over its corner of the quad alone, huge and ovoid as a flying saucer from a 1950s movie. There was a thin layer of hard ice over the surface of the snow. Walking on the ice layer over the snow left no human shaped footprints, only roundish impact craters on the surface. It crunched pleasantly underfoot as I walked. When I got close to the other side, I turned around and caught my breath. The grayish-white field spread out behind me. It was a lunar landscape, the marks of my progress across its surface like the pock-marks of meteor impact. I saw no trace of dirt or plants, nothing to indicate that just a few months ago the whole field had glowed green. Looking down at the field without taking in the buildings around it, it wasn't hard to believe this really was an alien world. The faint sound of a car horn from far off disturbed the dream and my mind fell back to Earth. By the time I made it to the lab, the winter day's meager allotment of sun was finished and it was dark.
I finished my work long before I thought the alien might appear. I was there waiting for him in the basement first, this time. I’d had the whole day to think of questions to ask him: What kind of ship did he arrive in? Had he initially planned to stay on Earth for this long or had he been stranded? What star did his planet orbit? How did he sleep? What did he eat? Did they have religion, sex , books, music, clothes or TV on his planet? What did he think of Earth and its people?
I looked at the notebooks I'd brought to write down his responses in. I hadn't been able to choose between the two, I'd been so nervous. More questions crowded my head. Why did he have to stay in the basement of the lab? How did they discover him? How had they kept such a big thing a secret for so long? All this thinking, psyched me out a bit. When I came face to face with him in reality again, I felt even more nervous and unprepared.
When I came upon him he was playing with the buttons on the public phone that was next to the coffee machine.
“What is this?” he asked me.
Surely he must already know the answer to that, I thought.
“It’s a telephone,” I said.
“Good,” he said, as if I had just answered a difficult bit of algebra. He continued to press the buttons.
He stared blankly back at my with those strange pupilled eyes. “May I have a coffee?” One of his eyes looked up while the other six remained fixed on the phone.
What else could I do? I bought him a coffee.
“What is your name?” I asked him trying to carefully pronounce each word.
“Robert,” said the alien.
Ooooh-kay. “My name is Ireen,” I offered, “Anything else I can get you?” It was a useless, flippant question. The machine only served coffee.
“I would like freeness, please-thank-you,” said the voice from the boombox.
“You want to be free,” I repeated stupidly.
A hole flap opened and closed quickly in Robert's forehead, creating a short whistling sound. “Yes,” said the boombox.
“O—“ I breathed deeply “Oh-kay. Why don't-- why don't you come here?” Feeling giddy, I walked towards the stairwell. Robert followed me. He was still whistling, but this time the machine was not translating. We climbed the stairs up to the ground floor. On the landing of the stairwell were two doors. One opened up into the lobby of the building with its bronze busts of Ramsay Wright and Francis Agassiz. The other was the door to the outside.
I pushed on the door bar. It was freezing outside. I had forgotten that I hadn’t brought my coat down with me and suddenly I felt that this was a very bad idea indeed. But I couldn’t turn back now because the alien, or rather “Robert,” was moving ponderously through the doorway out into the falling snow. Its feelers waved languidly in the breeze and I shivered as the bitter winter wind cut through my jeans and sweater. Robert’s whistle-voice sounded thin and insubstantial out there in the open air. Suddenly, he sagged to backwards onto the yellow brick of the wall.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Forgot, silly forgot. Bad air outside. Bad bad air. Take inside! Must do quick! Hurry!”
Was it just me or was there a note of alarm in that boombox voice of his? Gingerly, I helped him back through the door inside and closed it. A thin layer of snow flecked his glowing skin. The creature pushed past me, moving faster than I'd known it could.
“Excuse, excuse,” it said. “Must going down. Outside bad bad air outside. Not for breathing.”
The alien made it down the stairs before I could stop him. He was standing back at the coffee machine again when I caught up with him, feelers out, making odd sucking sounds. The ends of the feelers opened and closed like hundreds of tiny mouths. I was aware of the smell of formaldehyde again. The wall of repugnant formaldehyde stench hit me with near-physical force as I re-entered the basement.
“Are you all right?” I asked dubiously.
“Apologies. Incorrect air above. No good breath. No air for me. Please tell, what do you do here?”
“What? You mean in the university? Experiments, I suppose. Not on anything that interesting. Just fish and stuff.”
“Can I see?” .
I nodded and when Robert had regained his breath, I led him upstairs to the lobby. The elevator took us up to the 3rd floor.
As the elevator ascended I stole a look over at him. His face appeared impassive, though I felt certain it really wasn’t. There was emotion there, I was sure, but in facial expressions and scents humans weren't designed to decode.
We got to my lab. Feeling surreal, I showed him the fish and explained the purpose of the experiment by rote. Who could say if he understood? He didn't nod or say “unm-hmm” like a human would. Never before had I been so keenly aware of all the gaps body language fills in our human lives. When I was finally done, he paused and asked, “One fish-- each one on his own-- not know others like himself being around him?”
“I've been told their eyesight isn’t good enough to see the tanks across the room from them, even though they’re only about 3 feet away. The cardboard barriers keep them from seeing their neighbours on either side.”
“Each one each thinks he alone then.”
I shrugged. “I guess.”
“Are they feel bad to be alone?”
“I don't know, they can't tell you. I don't really think so, at any rate. They're not a social species and they're really territorial. In the wild the males stay away from each other. If you put them in a tank together they can bite each other to death. That's why they call them 'fighting fish.' You're from a social species, aren't you? I was thinking you'd have to be, to make a spaceship to get here from the stars. You'd need to co-operate with lots of other people, right?” I asked.
“They say, 'Robert don't co-operate. Tell us, tell us, tell us.' Tell what? Always 'co-operate then no more basement.' They're wrong. I know truth and not truth. Truth that no way to leave planet Earth, me. Nothing to tell. I cannot help even just me. How I help them? Alone. That is me. Like fish. Alone all.”
It was the longest conversation we ever had, though we weren't talking about the same things. We returned to the basement in silence. He slunk back down the hall, floating on whatever propelled him under that fleshy bell, down to his room like a ghost. I didn't go after him. What could you say to that? If I was right, he'd been couped up here longer than I'd been alive.
“What happened to your people?” I wondered at his departing form. “Why did they leave you here? Do they even know you're alive? Do they care?” My heart swelled with pity.
The next evening I returned early. I didn’t go to the fish lab directly, but straight down to the basement. It wasn’t dark as yet, but I couldn't help myself. I had to find out more.
I caught a nasty whiff of formaldehyde as I hit the basement level. It was always strongest here, near the dissection labs. Bad air. Funny he should think that outside, when here it smelled so rank. No, wait. This formaldehyde smell meant bad air for me. Maybe this was what made it good air for a creature from another planet! Something about the air outside was noxious to him. What did the air outside lack, that the air in the building always had in abundance? Formaldehyde! Perhaps, if formaldehyde gas was always a component of the oxygen he breathed on his home planet, his body might not be adapted to breathing oxygen without it. That is, if he breathed oxygen at all. He could be breathing nitrogen or carbon dioxide, for all I knew. There are plenty of gases in what we call “air” here on Earth, other than oxygen.
It was too early to be in the basement to meet the alien. Robert wouldn't be coming for ages. I was just about to return to the fish lab, when I saw someone coming down the hall. I was startled to see that he was human.
The man was neatly dressed man in a U of T security uniform like the ones the night guards on the dorms wear at night. He didn't wear the uniform like a dorm guard, though. He looked too trim and well muscled to be one of them. Everything about him spoke of the opposite of the sort which allowed hard partying students to sneak about with impunity in exchange for a few beers.
He jumped a little when he caught sight of me. He recovered his composure quickly, but I knew he hadn't expected to see anyone in the building.
“Excuse, are you lost?” He sounded French-Canadian. Not too common around here. In Toronto, if someone has a flavour of another language in their speech it's far more likely to be Chinese. To me, he smacked of government.
“Are you a student?” He narrowed his eyes at me. “ Things don’t open until next week, you know.”
“Oh, I know,” I said airily. “I’m working on a project for Professor McLennan.” The guard took out a tooney for the coffee machine. “You're not supposed to be here. These areas are restricted during vacation hours.”
“I have permission from the Dean of Zoology,” I said. I didn't, but how could he know? I held up my key desperately. “See, I have a key! I have to feed the fish every day and do the experiment on them! Why is there a problem now? I've been coming all week!”
“All week!” the guard looked alarmed.
“Yeah,” I said, trying to act cool.
It did seem to have ruffle his feathers a little. His coffee came out of the machine and he took a pull on the cup.
“Well, don't come down to this level. You don't have authorization. That key only gives you access to the upper floors.”
I could feel his eyes on my back all the way down the corridor until I got to the stairs. Not a pleasant sensation. The rest of the night I worked hard, never leaving my lab. I tried to focus on testing the fish to responses from the stimuli, not on the alien, but after preforming the same tests seventy-five times over, the mind does tend to wander.
I finally made it down to the ground floor around 1am, feeling anxious. What if they wouldn't let me out? There was a sound in the stairwell. I nearly jumped out of my skin, expecting the guard. I was relieved to see nothing but a humble gray rat, running away from my keylight. I resolved to stay away from the labs for as long as I could.
A few days passed in nervous hesitation. Soon there was only one more day before the start of the new semester. The other students would be back then. I was afraid to go to the lab, but I had to come back, if not for the alien, at least for my fish. They depended on me, and so did my professor and my final grade in the course.
I arrived at Ramsay Wright as soon as it got dark. I put my key in the keyhole by the elevator and took it up to my lab. The lights in the hall were already on. Perhaps I left them that way two days ago? I began to feel uneasy, but steeled myself not to panic yet. Then I saw something truly horrible.
The door to the fish lab was open. It hung before me wide open, like some obscenely yawning mouth. Maybe the lights could've been left on, but I knew I'd locked that door! Even supposing I hadn't locked it shut, I would never have left it open that way. The lights in the room had to be controlled with a timer for the experiment, so that the fish were only exposed to light for a certain amount of time per day. Now all the light from the hall was flooding in, uncontrolled. The temperature inside was especially configured for ideal heat and humidity. Now the air within was mixing with the air without. There couldn't be any risk of the fish encountering outside stimuli or it would ruin the experiment! A person bumbling in with a red T-shirt, for example, might undo weeks of conditioning.
I shouldn't have worried about inadvertent outside stimuli coming in, because something far worse had happened, I soon realized. At first I was relieved to see that everything in the lab was still in order, all fish present and accounted for, no broken jars or disturbed shelves, no sign of violence. Then I took a closer look and saw what had not been apparent at first glance.
Every single fish, in every single jar, was swimming round and round in vivid agitation, sail-like dorsal fins raised to full height, gill flaps puffed out as far as they could go, colourful tails lashing back and forth in anticipation of a fight. All the Betta splendans in the room were on full alert to threat, trying to make themselves appear as big and fierce as they could look. Why? It was then that I noticed there was indeed something missing from the room, that had escaped my attention before. All the partitions between the jars had been removed. No wonder the fish were so agitated! They could all see each other, for the first time in their lives! Trapped behind the glass of their individual jars they could neither fight nor flee. All they could do was remain on constant alert, endlessly trying to fake out the fish on either side with a show of power and size, growing more exhausted as the time passed.
How long had this been going on? An hour? One day? Two? Weeks of carefully controlled research down the tube, my academic future uncertain, the professor's trust in me broken! I sat down on a stork-legged lab chair. Who could have done this thing? Was there somebody out there who wanted me to fail my course that badly? And how did they get into the lab? As far as I knew, only the professor and me had the keys. It was such a small lab, I hadn't even known it was there until the prof first showed it to me. How did they do it? I thought about the guard. Him, it must have been him, I decided furiously.
The cardboard partitions were still in the room. The guard had left them neatly stacked on top of each other behind the door. Was this a warning? A horse head in the bed sort of thing? Maybe the Men in Black, or whoever they were who kept the alien, wanted me to get kicked out, to fail my course, so I wouldn't be in their hair anymore. If so, then ruining my experiment was a long shot. It would take months to make it into my grades. I would still take classes in the building come the new term no matter what. It was quite puzzling, if that was their motivation.
But first things first, time to get the partitions back up and put the fish out of their misery. I picked up the partitions and began replacing them. As I picked up one, I noticed the cardboard looked strangely shiny. I touched the shiny spot. It was sticky and a little bit warm. I suddenly noticed that the room smelled more strongly of formaldehyde than it ever had before. I quickly shuffled through the cardboard pieces like a deck of enormous cards. All were shiny and vaguely sticky. The formaldehyde smell was strongest in the part of the room where the partitions had been stacked. And then I knew it wasn't the guard who did this thing. It was Robert.
Why? Why had the alien done it? “Just you think about that question,” I scolded myself. “You were a fool to bring him here!” Robert was an alien. Who could guess why he did what he did? No. That wasn't right. I could guess why. I recalled those flat inflectionless words desperately straining out through his translator.
Alone. That is me. Like fish. Alone all.
He was trying to save the fish from his own fate! I was sure that Robert had come from a social species. The technology it took to bring him here, his speech, all seemed to point to that. What society had he left behind, what community? Here I was, lonely over my lack of boyfriends, yet how much more lonely for Robert , with no one to love for twenty-two years? How awful to see only alien faces, to hear only alien speach for so long! I wondered if we were very ugly to him. Maybe he'd been so absorbed in his own thoughts he hadn't heard what I told him about the bettas not being a social species. Maybe he didn't understand that there could be non-social species. On his planet only social species might exist. Maybe he was just bored.
Did he have a family out there, among the stars? A mate too far away to contact? What torture to know your loved ones are out there, to see their star every night in the sky, and you unable to tell them you were still alive? With all that advanced technology, and complex intelligence, he was still in the same position as a bunch of simple fish; trapped and alone. No, worse than fish. To be intelligent, to have the capacity to love and have memories of people, could become a gateway to a very special type of pain, a pain only certain types of brainy animals, with good memories seemed to experience. It was a serious evolutionary disadvantage, I'd always thought. Dangerous, to make animals intelligent enough to know how to do away with themselves, but never intelligent enough to know how to effectively ease the pain that brought on such thoughts to begin with. Sometimes I envied the fish, simple and free from such complicated concerns. They had no sense of hurt or rejection from by a social group. Experience made its mark upon their instincts and automatic responses, but their simple minds remained free of hurt feelings, injured pride, and worry over friends in danger.
I had naively shown Robert a way out of the building. I knew the air outside was bad for him to breathe. What was he trying to communicate to me? Had he decided to end his own existence? No, no. I couldn't be responsible for that! It wasn't fair! I had to find out if he was all right.
I went down to the basement again. Everything looked the same as it always had. I put in my money for coffee. The old machine rattled to life once again. The alien wouldn't be coming tonight, I could feel it. I put my hands in the kangaroo pocket in the front of my sweatshirt and felt my keys inside. I remembered, back at the start of the year when the campus was still beautiful and green, scratching my initials into an old tree outside Hart House besides those of Sung-woo with my house key, hoping he'd be my real boyfriend one day. Without thinking, I took the key to the lab and tried to see if it would scratch the metal finish on the side of the coffee machine. It was easy. Idly, I scratched out a triangle on the metal while I waited.
As the coffee nozzle dribbled to a finish and then stopped the flow entirely, I had a sudden thought. I realized that there was probably no chance the guard would let Robert out of his room with other people in the building again. The guard would sweep the hallway to make sure it was all clear before letting Robert get his coffee, if they let him get it himself at all anymore. I would never see him again, assuming he was still here and hadn't tried to escape. Everything had been left so unfinished! It was so frustrating. I had so many questions still to ask him and so much to find out about him. I gripped the keys decisively and scratched a blocky letter “Y” into the metal of the machine. If Robert was as addicted to coffee as I was and still residing in the building, he'd be back. His keepers couldn't remain vigilant forever, though it might take a very long time for them to grow lax again. I only had five more months left at U of T, fewer still working on the fish project. I couldn't trust on telling him what I had to say face to face, but there were other ways of communicating. I carefully scratched out the rest of my message on the side of the coffee machine. By the time I finished, it covered the whole left side of the machine, nice and bold.
I went back to the betta lab, to tend to my fish.
That was the last time I was in the Ramsay Wright Building by myself. The second semester began on schedule. Hallways and classrooms filled with students in loud conversation. They traded notes, test grades, homework assignments and tales of almighty holiday drinking sprees and wild vacation hook-ups.
Sung-woo came back from his cruise, bursting to talk about a hot Korean-American girl from California he'd met on the cruise. She had also been traveling with her parents.
I didn't tell anyone about what happened with the experiment. We continued testing the fish with no one the wiser to the fact that they'd all been exposed to each other for God only knows how long. I didn't want to lie, but it was the only way I could think of to salvage the situation. The prof was unlikely to catch me out. If the experimental data didn't yield the results we'd predicted at the start, it didn't mean we'd messed up. Science was all about unexpected findings, after all.
So what were the results at the end of the day? Unsurprisingly, the data on the fish came back inconclusive. The results provided no ground-breaking new info on Betta splendans behaviour, which meant our write-up was unlikely to receive publication in any of the main Zoology journals. The prof comforted us by saying that one of the local journals would still probably take it, if we could make our write-up more succinct.
Would the results have been any different had the partitions not been removed? Who could say? I didn't feel angry at Robert about it though. His very alienness made it inappropriate. How could he have known? What amazed me the most, now that I thought about it, was that we had had so much common ground at all. Despite the difference between our species, we really had been able to share quite a lot. What were the chances that a creature, whose kind must have evolved under such different circumstances than my species had, could communicate with a human, or would even want to? I still marveled at the fact, that even with such widely divergent physiologies, we could still both enjoy the same drink.
He had reached out to me, of all people. I spoke with a genuine, living, breathing alien! Let publication in a prestigious Zoological journal compete with that!
I thought about Robert frequently, even as the profs of my new courses piled on the assignments and required readings. Sometime in February, after a month of avoiding the basement of Ramsay Wright, lest I be spirited away by the mysterious security guard, I went back to eat in the Zoological building's cafeteria. I was tired of eating alone at the Hangar, a cafe down the street, even though it did boast the only video game machnes on campus. At least in the Zoology cafe, I'd be more likely to run into fellow classmates. I too hated being alone, I realized. As I walked down the basement hall past the strong smelling dissection rooms, the coffee machine caught my eye.
No one was using it today. During school hours, most students preferred the coffee from the Second Cup cart upstairs. I examined the side of the machine. My words were still there, fruitlessly scratched into the metal. “You are NOT alone. You have me at least. Don't foget that.” What was I thinking? It sounded like some lame pop song. Stupid.
Might as well get a cup for old time's sake, I thought bitterly. I went to put my coin in the slot, but something caught my eye. I drew my hand back and my heart leapt up. In tiny block capitals, in Sharpie marker below the coin slot, it said: THANK YOU FOR SHOWING ME.
Showing him? Showing him what? That he wasn't alone? Or was it showing him a way out of the building? Surreptitiously, I looked down the hall to the area where the door had been that he'd come out of before. It had changed in the time I'd been gone. Someone had bricked it up, cemented and painted it over a noxious yellow to match the rest of the wall. I shuddered and walked back to the cafe. I met some friends there, but couldn't concentrate on anything they said through the whole lunch.
Two weeks later, I noticed a small article in the Varsity, our school newspaper, on the next to last page. ROBBERY AND BREAK IN AT RAMSAY WRIGHT ZOOLOGICAL LABS. With growing alarm I scanned the small column. Building security seemed to think frat pranksters were the culprits. Strangely, all that was missing after the break-in was a four litre container of formaldehyde, some flexible plastic pippets, a strip of dialysis tubing and a smoke inhalation mask. There was a phone number to call if you had any information about the crime.
I knew it had nothing to do with frat pranksters. I breathed a deep sigh. It was Robert. He was just collecting what he needed to breathe the outside air before he made a break for it. So he was alive after all, at least for now.
All it would take was one phone call to explain the whole thing. Maybe I'd become rich and famous as the first zoologist to describe an alien being. I imagined getting my own nature documentary show like David Attenborrough. I pictured the house I would build, on the shores of Hawaii, away from the cold, away from the university, with its awkward combination of 19th century and 21st century buildings. I thought of my own private strip of beach, where I'd watch the dolphins frolick among the waves and study fish that didn't live in jars, but roamed free through the coral reefs. Sure. More likely, they would just assume I was one of their “frat pranksters” or just another run-of-the mill crackpot.
As I stood outside, thinking about these things and shivering in the cold, snow began to fall. A big, wet flake dropped onto the newspaper, turning the phone number in the article to an indistinct gray smudge. I could get another paper, there were usually lots lying around in the cafes and student lounges.
I could still betray Robert if I wished, but if I had a wish, to betray him was not it. I walked on, down to the intersection of Bloor and St. George, and on toward the subway station, where I threw the paper into a recycling bin.
I wondered if Robert could really survive outside the building. He might die out there, miserable and alone, worse off than he'd been before. Maybe they'd only recapture him again, after all that trouble. Maybe the items stolen from the building weren't even stolen by him after all. Frat pranksters. Right. Maybe, and this was the least likely possibility to my thinking, he'd find some way home again. His ship might still be out there, stranded somewhere, waiting to be flown again, having spent the years of Robert's imprisonment recharging itself with solar power. It seemed just as unlikely, that he might live out the rest of his life here on Earth, free to observe the strange creatures all around him, wearing a formaldehyde tank on his back. That was the problem. There were just too many “maybes.”
That's what still nags at me now, even though so much time has passed. There was so much I didn't understand about the alien! I could take each small event between us and interpret it a million different ways, never knowing which, if any, was the right one. It's those unanswered questions, those actions seemingly without reason or motivation that occupy the mind the most. It was the sort of problem that a human brain could keep picking at forever, like a difficult knot that would never come undone.
This is what being a scientist is really about, I grew to realize, accepting the fact that you'll probably never have all the answers, but striving to figure out everything you can anyway. We lay the groundwork, with our primitive questions and curiosity, for the answers our technologically superior descendants will one day uncover. It was a shame there were so many places where questions were forbidden and phenomena considered too strange or silly to be explored. However, I can say with complete confidence that we will find Robert's world through a telescope one day, though it may not be in my lifetime. Current instruments just aren't sensitive enough to pick up the subtle signs of alien civilizations, I tell myself. It doesn't mean they're not there.
I'm lucky, I think. I didn't have to wait to see some vague indications of alien civilization through a telescope. I'd had living proof. I got to see Robert right here in the prosaic basement of this very bio lab and I will always be thankful to him for that unique privilege. I'm fairly certain he is still on Earth today, in some shape or form. Hopefully he is still alive, but it is sadly possible that he is not. Nonetheless, something of him must remain here, something that never perished, something that might help me at last to understand.
I've change my approach to my studies these days. I no longer just work to get the best grade I can and take whatever experiments the profs push on me whether I care about them or not. I know what direction I want to move in now. I know what sort of things I want to glean from my learning. I'm learning what I need to in order to locate and study an alien with kindness and compassion. I'm studying what sort of questions to ask him next. What matters more than grades to me, is finding Robert again.
After all, I still owe him a coffee.