Tark stared at the diagram. It was a golden square, clearly valuable, more valuable than the machine it came off of. He honestly didn’t think he would ever find salvage this far outside of the galactic rim.
“What are they?” asked Pim. He was looking over Tark’s shoulder.
“I don’t know,” said Tark. “Do you think we should call HQ?”
“Are you kidding?” said Pim. “We have explicit orders not to get involved in alien civilizations. Lets just keep the salvage and go.”
“But these ones are so weird looking.”
Pim sighed and floated to the far side of the bridge. He hovered for a while at the controls, touching this and that display. A meter wide square appeared suspended in the middle of the room. A representation of the golden artifact glowed in the center.
“Okay, look,” said Pim. “We’ll make a cypher okay?”
“A cypher?” asked Tark. “Why don’t we just try to contact them?”
Pim glared at him. “Look, you’re lucky I’m willing to allow this.”
“Okay okay, fine,” said Tark. “Let me program the message then.”
“Do you even know what to say?”
“Yeah there’s an audio transmission from the planet.”
“Fine,” said Pim, tapping the controls with a slender finger. “Then afterwards can we just go?”
“Yeah, yeah, we’ll go.”
Tark held the square in his digits while the rest of the probe was crushed, cubed and reduced to its elements. In another chamber, a figure stood, ambiguous behind the glass. Pim tapped at the controls and turned to Tark.
“You’re sure they look like that?”
“Yeah,” said Tark. “Why wouldn’t they?”
“I don’t know,” said Pim. “Just seems kind of odd. You don’t see many life forms so thin. And golden? Really? Do they carry some sort of isotope in their skin?”
Tark shrugged. “I guess. They’re clearly spacefaring, so they must have holographic technology. If they looked any different than what’s on the plaque, they would have just shown us in three dimensions.”
“So they’re flat? That’s ludicrous.”
“Look,” said Tark. “Trust me. When they meet the cypher, they won’t even be able to tell it apart from their own. It will blend right in, talk to a few of them. We’ll watch the whole thing cloaked, then we leave.”
Pim sighed again. “I swear, if HQ fires us for this, I am never forgiving you.”
The cypher was a thin creature, golden skinned and asymmetrical. It walked on the flimsy balls of its feet out the door and into the delivery pod. Pim watched it go with some skepticism.
“I don’t know… are the arms supposed to be lopsided like that?”
Tark held up his three fingers in a dismissive gesture. “Would you just trust me for once?”
They watched through the cypher’s eyes. They watched as the pod landed and the door opened into a lush, green forest.
Phyllis Guntmeyer had been walking her pomeranian when Spunky began to bark. A man stepped from behind a nearby tree–no, not a man. It was a cardboard cutout of a man, frozen in a waving pose. It was golden, naked and flat as paper. And it moved!
“HELLO FINE SIR!” it said. “I WOULD LIKE FOR TO VISIT A NEARBY TOWNSHIP!”
Its mouth was an animated gash in a line-drawing face, a living paper puppet, eight feet tall and impossibly thin. Its bent raised arm waved and twisted like a shaken saw blade.
Phyllis screamed, clutched her chest and fell to the ground.
Pim turned to Tark, his three eyes glaring. “You’re a fucking idiot, you know that?”
(c) 2011 Marlan Smith