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Foreign Bodies In the Sky
It was a crisp October morning — the kind that brings busy businessmen in overcoats to their front yards, waving gaily at neighbors, -- even neighbors they hate, and even the dogs of neighbors they hate — just because it’s so damn nice out. Little kids tricycled through the red orange jubilee, and leaves descended poetically from the branches of trees. It was unreal, really. Frisbees whizzed over sidewalks and into neighboring yards, whose elderly occupants would merely chuckle in their rocking chairs and send them sailing back. It seemed that for once the world had been swathed in light, and a faint humming consumed the streets of Kent. An unmistakably pleasant mood was blowing through the air, smiling its arid optimism on everyone it saw. Everyone, that is, except for Alfred P. Wallaby.
Hunched over his lab table, Wallaby hadn’t the time to take notice of such trivial things as peak autumnal weather. In fact, he hadn’t even shaved in weeks.
He smiled to himself when he thought of it: they were on the brink of a major breakthrough at the Kent Administration for Space Aeronautics, and they didn’t even know it yet. And it was not only KASA that was about to make legendary strides towards greatness, but, he supposed, his own career as well.
It had been his boyhood dream to work at KASA, the center around which orbited his every fantasy. An overweight child, he had been taunted by other children and took refuge in the elaborate scenes of his future that played out grandly in his mind. One involved himself in a long white lab coat, as pure as a supernova, striding across a gleaming tiled floor and smiling at the other scientists as they fumbled to impress him.
“Dr. Wallaby sir,” a slender young dame would chirp, in a respectful yet tight-fitting lab dress. ”The mayor wishes to speak with you.”
“Bob?” he would sigh, “I had a lunch date with the guy less than a week ago! All he ever wants to do is compare biceps. To be honest, I think he was a little put-off by mine.”
“Well, you are the strongest, most buff genius I’ve ever laid eyes on.” the lap wench would giggle, nearly dropping her folders.
“Oh Shirley,” he’d say, flashing a charitable grin. ”Do you want to feel them?”
“Oh, gee! Could I?” Shirley would squeal as he begins to roll his sleeves-
But he had come to realize soon after joining the team that this dream was a bit farther off than anticipated. The first thing he had noticed about KASA were the small, dimly lit quarters, the smell of hazardous chemicals and poor hygiene burning in the air, and the coffee, slightly stale, provided in the single prehistoric aged coffee machine in the building.
“We’re a research team,” his department head, Sidra, had explained on the fateful day that he had started. ”You know… A small group of researchers. We calculate stuff. We keep our eyes peeled for foreign bodies in the sky. That’s it.” She had studied the rotund nature of his face, and the searing gaze permeating from it. She had sensed, perhaps, the ambition pulsing in those boyish eyes.
“We get guys in here sometimes hoping to skip right to the big fish pond. Fresh out of school, full of ideals and whatever. Look, I just want to tell you, that’s not what this job’s gonna be like. Leave the big stuff to the Big Boss, and by that I mean stay out of the Big Boss’ way, capiche? You’re not gonna be stopping an astroid from wiping out the whole damn species or-” She had looked at him pointedly then, “sending guys to far-off planets or whatever. Coffee machine’s over there. Wear gloves, or at least wash the chemicals off your hands before you touch the toilet flusher. You get a break at noon. Don’t go to the burger joint next door, they nearly poisoned me once. Just thought you might wanna know.”
Even greetings as inspirational as this were not enough to sway Alfred P. Wallaby from his lofty ambitions. For Alfred had a spark that none of the other researchers could even dream of, and that spark was an idea. He worked at the calculations whenever he could, in the spaces between each small, tedious project, on his lunch breaks and even at home in his mothers’ basement forsaking sleep in favor of hours at his desk, scribbling, erasing, recalculating. His efforts were so fervent and tireless that even his colleagues began to take notice. Sometimes Alfred would glance up for a moment to meet the inquisitive gaze of Maxwell, who was British, or John Walker, whose hobby was making solar system baby mobiles out of styrofoam chunks, or Babs, who with her perpetually high-pitched nasal monotone. Even Sidra herself would watch him with a glance of narrow-eyed suspicion that could only mean Whatever It Is, It Can’t Be Good. And a trace of something else, some thoughtful emotion creeping over the smooth terrain of her face. Either way her motto held fast: Big Boss is always watching.
Dr. Travis Wayne was the head of KASA. He drove a Porsche. His wife was a German swimsuit model that did nothing to defer him from the countless woman guests welcomed into his office daily. There were rumors that he was superhuman, some that he was a man of strength and brilliance, and some, merely a womanizer. Everyone agreed that Dr. Travis Wayne was living the dream, with a stony clutch over KASA and all of its inhabitants. As Sidra and the others watched Alfred scrawling away, it was Big Boss that they feared.
None of his spectators made any efforts to discourage him. Sidra’s residing policy was that as long as his work got done, she couldn’t be bothered poking her nose in. And the others, so unaccustomed to noticing anyone’s patterns but their own, began to fill in the cracks with their own spurious resolutions. A rumor took flight that Alfred was writing a novel. It made perfect sense, that his harried looks, extra weight, constant scribbling and nervous glances would be “writers’ quirks.”
“In fact, I heard that he fancies himself a young Michael Crichton,” Babs once said to John Walker. ”I heard he only landed this job so he could incorporate us into his latest opus,” Babs made finger quotes at this. ”Something about Martian Cults and Nebraskan researchers.” She made little effort to minimize the volume of her obnoxious falsetto, and as a result the entire researching team could overhear quite effortlessly.
“Well good, for him, mixin’ art and science. True renaissance man.” John Walker boomed, before Babs cut him off.
“All I can say is, if he writes anything the least bit critical about me I will have my lawyers pounce on that like LEOPARDS TO RED MEAT.”
But soon, Alfred and his alleged novel wove itself into the fabric of the department. It was something the team could rely upon, and they drew strange comfort from it when nothing in space seemed to make any sense at all. For a while then, life at KASA returned to its normal, quiet gait, until one Octobers day — the very day the good mood blew threw town, a door in KASA blew open to reveal Sidra, huffing for air and mildly frantic.
“Everyone look busy,” she wheezed, “Big Boss is coming down.”
An unsettled murmur shook the group. It was a rare occasion that Big Boss ventured down from his top floor office overlooking the city. Babs and Sidra were brushing their hair and quickly applying makeup, Maxwell and John Walker sat stiffly in their seats, struggling to maintain a gruff air of masculinity. It isn’t fair, thought Albert, that this guy is so celebrated just for his dashing smile and glossy hair. He wondered, if I wasn’t fat, would this guy’s job and mine be switched?
But there was no further time for introspection, for at that moment Dr. Travis Wayne strutted through the door with the debonair authority of a high priest. Light reflected on his chocolate brown locks, and his bone structure was that of a Roman sculptor’s depiction of a god. On either arm, he held two skeletons with glossy golden hair. These women, each at least a foot taller than the doctor, were the most unnaturally thin he had ever seen — bones jutted through their sticklike arms and legs, and expensive dresses hid their translucent skin. In truth, they looked alarmingly like zombies, but in a universally impressive way.
“Excuse us,” Wayne’s smooth baritone sailed through the room, “But I just wanted to show my two lady friends around here. They’re supermodels, if you must know.”
The team nodded, pretending one of them had asked, and Wayne flashed a white-toothed grin. He tightened his grip on the tired skeletons.
“I’d like you all to meet Astrid and Natalia. Ladies, meet my team. The team and I work very closely together, although they don’t do nearly as advanced work as I in the areas of science and space travel. Very advanced work.”
The team sat frozen, each counting on one hand the number of times they had seen Dr. Wayne before, each time escorting a new lady friend.
To break the silence Astrid showed off her divine intellect. ”Science is like…. so interesting….” she said.
“Like… yeah.” Natalia nodded vigorously.
It was then that Dr. Travis Wayne rested his gaze upon Alfred, who had taken this oppurtunity to return to his furious calculations. He was so close to finishing, there was now only one small obstacle to work around…. and then…. Eureka. Alfred broke into a massive, toothy grin. It inhabited his whole face, unable to be hidden, and stood out of place in the somber room like a polar bear in a sea of pigeons.
“You there,” Travis Wayne said, a chilly edge working its way into his voice. ”What is it you’re smiling about?”
“What?” said Alfred innocently, “Oh, nothing. Nothing at all, really. Just a puzzle I’ve been working on for quite a while actually. And with all due respect, it’s pretty advanced work. Even for you, sir.”
“I think I can manage,” Dr. Wayne hissed, spitting each word as if they tasted foul.
The team looked on, mouths agape, wondering what in God’s name had possessed this quiet, mild-mannered man to change so suddenly.
Dr. Wayne was looking quite pale as he read over Alfred’s notes, and when at last he gazed up from the book of calculations a look of unmistakable terror had taken hold of his features.
“Impossible,” he said, “Completely impossible. It can’t be true. For someone with your stunted level of experience? Your stature! Why you’re just a plump little runt.”
“Trav, what did he write?” asked Astrid, craning her giraffelike neck to see. “Tell us, Trav.”
The doctor sighed, looking significantly older than when he’d entered. “It- It’s the calculations for sending a mission to Saturn. For working someone into it’s orbit… for making it a habitable planet.”
The team gasped, mumbling to each other about the potential nonexistence of a novel.
Sidra spoke up, “But the conditions on Saturn! There’s no way!”
“But it’s all right here,” Wayne said weakly, holding the paper in the air. ”Fat Albert here has done it.”
The doctor continued to pore helplessly through the chicken-scratch, searching for an error. ”Aha!” he smiled at last, “But what you haven’t explained here is the way to work around Saturn’s gravitational pull, which any dunce would know is the highest of any planet. None of our astronauts could do it, they’d all weigh hundreds of pounds on Saturn! They would not even be able to move, especially you know, those of you who are overweight even under normal gravitational circumstances” He smiled triumphantly, glad to have secured once more his role of Best and Brightest.
“It’s Alfred,” Alfred said, “And actually sir, you’re wrong. True, any normal person could never do it. But your lady friends look quite up to the challenge.”
Astrid and Natalia looked on daftly, uncomprehending.
“Astrid,” said Alfred, “Would you like to go to space?”
Astrid’s eyes lit up, “YES!” she squealed, “You mean it?!!!”
“Astrid, darling, I’m not sure about this. We should talk it over upstairs in my-“
But Astrid cut off the doctor, “I’ve always been called spacy, right? And I, like, am the only one skinny enough. I’m totally going.”
Were they launched in the end on a mission to orbit their way through Saturn’s rings? That, my friends, is KASA confidential, but it can be known that at this very moment Alfred P. Wallaby resides as the head of the establishment, in an easy chair, with his wife Sidra smiling at his side. Night has just fallen, and the new couple, freshly returned from their honeymoon to Aruba, are watching the stars out the office window, barely discernible over the polluted air of the city.
“Do you think what I did is worse than what Wayne did?” murmurs Alfred, for this has been troubling him of late.
“Alfred,” Sidra says, “Those girls wanted some perspective or whatever, so they got it. Some men make women into objects, and some make ‘em into unidentified flying ones. Either way, I’m happy.”
And she was.