"Mister Andersen? I ... I have an idea for a story, I mean if you're interested."
Looking up from my notebook, I saw a young man standing there, shifting nervously from one foot to the other; sweat beading on his upper lip, a scraggly goatee gracing his chin, his watery brown eyes appearing unnaturally large behind thick lenses. He was wearing a wrinkled t-shirt, jeans and scuffed running shoes.
I had taken a break from being a panelist on one of the Convention's workshops on the Craft of Sci-Fi Writing to grab a cup of coffee and make notes on a story I was working on. The auditorium's snack bar was empty except for a bored young woman behind the counter and the two of us. What the hell, he looked like a nice guy.
"Sure, have a seat, like some coffee?"
He declined my offer, pulled up a chair and sat down, sitting bolt upright instead of slumping as many his age did. As he talked, he became very animated, his hands never still on the aluminum table top.
"Thanks for listening to me," he began, "I tried telling my story to other people but they didn't seem interested."
"What is it?" I replied, feeling sorry for him. When you've read enough sci-fi, think 'I can do this' and begin to type, face it, you're hooked; then comes the hard part, finding someone willing to read it. With the advent of the Internet anyone can post a story and get noticed for a while; it takes considerably more effort to make that leap into being published. Some make it; a lot don't and sink back into everyday life, their dreams dimming like a guttering candle.
"There's this alien, see, and he finds himself on Earth when something goes wrong with his spaceship and he has to land and..."
"Wait a minute," I said. "He's from an advanced civilization and he can't repair his ship?"
"If your car broke down on a lonely road, could you repair it?"
He had me there. "Okay, he's landed, now what?"
"He's able to land in a park in the middle of a big city, he hides his ship, assumes the form of the first human he encounters and sets out to find someone that could repair the damaged component."
"He should have called the Galactic Motor Club," I said with a grin.
He had a puzzled look on his face, and then continued.
"Everyone he approaches with his problem thinks he's drunk or crazy. Then he sees a bookstore with some science fiction titles in the window. He reads a few, then realizes the people who write these books could relate to his problem and needs to find them.
There's a science fiction convention in town and he goes there thinking people won't brush him off and will listen to his problem. What do you think of it?"
"It has promise," I say, "What happens next?"
"Next?" he thinks for a minute and says "This isn't really a story you know, it's the truth. I need help."
'Oh crap, a looney bird' I'm thinking, but there was something in his eyes that stopped me from excusing myself and leaving. I found myself saying "What do you think is wrong with your ship?"
"A (it sounded like 'prxzl') board is ... not well. I can show you."
"Okay." I said, standing up, "My car's in the lot. We can drive over there and..."
"There's no need for that," he said. He stood up and placed his hand on my shoulder. Did you ever have a chill run through your body for no reason whatsoever? My grandmother used to say it was when someone walked on the ground where your grave would be. I shuddered, blinked and we were in his ship.
I've always had a touch of vertigo and it frightens me to get near the edge of a balcony or a bridge railing; I looked around and then down. My senses shrieked 'Danger!' as I realized I was suspended in mid air. My feet were planted on something solid but invisible. I began to sweat and I could feel a gorge rising in my throat as unreasoning panic took hold.
"I apologize for the momentary disorientation," he said from below where I was standing, "Feel better now?" I did.
I took a deep breath and looked about me. I was in the center of a spherical room, featureless except for oddly shaped protrusions in seemingly random patterns. I swallowed, looked down between my feet and saw him up to his waist in an opening. He emerged holding something, the aperture closed and he came floating up to me. "Do you think this can be fixed?" he said expectantly.
'This' was what appeared to be some sort of printed circuit board, but flexible and a bilious shade of green. Red lines crisscrossed it in every direction and wherever they intersected was an orange dot.
I thought immediately of my pal Bernie. If anybody could figure out what was wrong with this ... whatever it was ... it was Bernie. We'd met in college taking a course in creative writing. He was studying Information Technology, but needed a few electives to round out his schedule. Since I was majoring in Journalism, I helped him with the assignments and he did his best to teach me about computers.
After graduation we'd kept in touch. He'd recently opened a computer sales and repair service, so I punched in his number on my cell phone.
I told him I had a friend that needed something repaired and he said sure, c'mon over. The kid was pleased at the news and in one shivery moment we were standing at the door of Bernie's shop.
We went in and Bernie came around the counter to greet us. I started to introduce the man and realized I didn't know his name. He said 'call me Jerry' and shook Bernie's hand. When he showed the green board to him, he shook his head, turning it over in his hands and disappeared muttering into the back room.
I knew how Bernie operated and figured we'd better kill some time while he puzzled over what we'd brought him. There was a deli down the block so I suggested we walk down there and get a bite to eat. The kid said okay and off we went.
Halfway there, some punk waving a knife stepped from an alley and demanded our wallets, Jerry looked at him and scowled. There was a sound like a gum bubble popping, the punk was gone and his knife clinked on the sidewalk.
"What did you just do?" I said.
"I sent him away." he replied. "He'll have some trouble getting back here, but he's alive."
I kicked the weapon through a sewer grate and we walked on. What had I gotten myself into?
I gnawed my way through a Reuben sandwich while Jerry nibbled on a tossed salad, chewing ruminatively. Finally he said "You know where I was going when I crash landed here?"
I said I didn't and he went on.
"I was running away. I'm a fugitive."
I swallowed my bite of corned beef and kraut, "A fugitive from whom?"
"The Breeding Council, they want me to produce an offspring."
I took a drink of orange soda, "What is this Breeding Council?"