Don’t Forget the Pastries
by Bill Kowaleski
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
As they walked down a long, white corridor, Green-Eyes leaned closer to Gustafson and asked in a conspiratorial whisper, “Would you happen to have any donuts with you?”
Gustafson laughed. “Oh sure. I always carry donuts when I take an interstellar trip.”
“Excellent, would you have any raspberry-filled or...”
“Hey, Green-Eyes, it was a joke. I don’t have any donuts.”
“Ah, humor. Always a challenge in cross-cultural situations.”
They continued down the brilliantly-lit corridor of pure white walls, then turned right. This shorter corridor featured on either side a panel similar to the keypads used to restrict entry to secure rooms. But the keypads were round and full of strange, curvy symbols. Green-Eyes chose the right-hand panel and tapped it furiously. An opening appeared in the smooth, white wall.
“Enter, Gustafson,” said Green-Eyes, pointing to the entrance with his long bony finger.
Inside the Sheriff found not a simple cell but a small apartment with slightly undersized furniture: a sofa, an armchair, a table with one simple chair made of something that looked like plastic, and then a separate bedroom with a bed he could see right away was going to be too short for him. To the right of the bed was an open door leading to what looked like a bathroom.
“You may speak with us by simply thinking the word communicate. But don’t expect us to respond at all times. If you have a requirement for medications, tell me now.”
“So how long am I gonna be in this place?”
“This is unsure. We will update you when we have further information.”
All of his training and experience was telling Gustafson that things were not as they seemed. Why wouldn’t they let him see Commander Inmohotep? And why wouldn’t they immediately enlist his help to track down the oak smugglers? Wouldn’t someone from Earth be critical to doing that? And wouldn’t it be important to start now, while the trail was still warm?
Gustafson sat on the incredibly comfortable couch and considered the possibilities. As he thought through scenarios, one thing became more and more clear: His captors were most probably not interested in finding out who had sent those logs through the transporter. Why not? Because they already knew.
Gustafson was tired, and he had no idea how he could act on his conclusions. Knowing now that Sirian equipment responded to voice commands he said, “How about some entertainment?”
The wall opposite him lit up with a screen full of the same curvy letters he’d seen on the keypads outside the room. “English,” he commanded. And English he got. Soon he was watching a fascinating history of Sirian civilization that included a discussion of their extensive travels to Earth over more than two hundred thousand years.
He learned that the Sirian language, once lowered to the pitch of the human ear, was very similar to ancient Egyptian, and that, in fact, the Sirians had taught the Egyptians their language and assisted them in building the pyramids.
He learned about the Sirian caste system. Black eyes denoted a kind of ruling class, while green-eyed Sirians were laborers or servants, and blue-eyed ones were technicians or academics.
But what interested Gustafson most was the video about drug abuse. The black-eyed class had a lot of free time and the most money; they were the primary customers of the oak smugglers. The oak trade had spread over the years as smugglers planted acorns of the adaptable trees on many planets, away from the watchful eyes of SDE.
Oak resin was the only significant recreational drug that was illegal because it was so destructive to the Sirian body. The average Sirian lived two hundred Sirian years, the equivalent of five hundred Earth years. But when a Sirian regularly snorted oak resin, he lost fifty years of life for every year of regular drug usage.
Oak resin not only induced an intense euphoria in Sirians, it also caused aberrant behavior. Sirians under the influence were known for massive sex orgies, disruptive singing in public, eating a gourd-like fruit on forbidden days and, worst of all, failure to attend required rituals. It all had Gustafson scratching his head when the door to his apartment suddenly slid open.
“Esteemed Sheriff Gustafson?” Black-Eyes called to him from the hallway.
“May I enter?”
Black-Eyes stepped inside and stood silently.
“What’s up, Black-Eyes?” asked Gustafson
“May I sit?”
“Hey, just come in and make yourself comfortable, for cryin’ out loud.”
Gustafson was bewildered. Black-Eyes’ demeanor had shifted dramatically from treating the Sheriff like a prisoner to treating him like an honored guest.
“There is a problem,” Black-Eyes stated. “We have not been completely honest with you.”
“Well, tell me something I didn’t already know.” Gustafson smiled, leaned forward and added, “You know who shipped those logs here, don’t you?”
“That is correct.”
“And my being here is bollixing up your operation, isn’t it?”
“I cannot process ‘bollixing’.”
“My presence causes you unexpected problems.”
“There are several possible paths we can take. For example, we could transport you to the Andromeda Galaxy, where you supposedly came from. We could pretend we didn’t realize the implications of that action. But if we were ever mind-probed, the truth would come out: that we’d actually murdered you.”
“I’m not much liking that option,” said Gustafson. “Look, you’ve broken no laws on Earth. I’ve got no beef with you. Just tell me how we get out of this thing with me still living.”
“It is possible that you have already presented us with a way to do just that.”
“Excellent, what is it?”
Gustafson stared at Black-Eyes expressionless face, waiting for an explanation. But Black-Eyes remained silent.
“Ah... did I hear you correctly? Did you just say donuts?”
* * *
“I knew this was a bad idea!” shouted Cindy. “They almost caught you last time and yet you had to try it again. I should have made you stay in Hawaii. What exactly is your problem, Sean?”
Sean’s eyes were glued to the tabletop. “I was bored. Hawaii is nice and all, but it’s so isolated, and there are no Sirians there, and I kinda missed working with my clanmates.”
Cindy let loose an exasperated sigh. “Your friggin’ clanmates are all criminals!”
“Yeah, I know. But what’s life without taking a few risks? And besides, law-abiding people are so boring.”
Cindy took a breath to respond and then stopped. It hadn’t been that long ago when she’d been on the wrong side of the law herself. When she had first met Sean, she was the town’s lone prostitute, and quite a successful one too. She knew that her profession had been part of the initial attraction Sean felt toward her.
“OK,” Cindy said. “I get it was boring, sitting around Hawaii: going diving, deep sea fishing, taking hikes, enjoying all the great weather. Who in his right mind would want to do that?”
“Yeah, it’s nice there, but I was still bored.”
“But you never told me that your clanmates were actually members of friggin’ Sirian Drug Enforcement!” Cindy was standing now, pounding the table.
“That’s the only way you can ship oak to Sirius Prime these days — use corrupt drug enforcement agents. Cuts into the profits some, but I don’t need the money.”
Walsh said, “You remember when that Sirian Commander whats-his-name was here, and he determined that the Sirian we called Wolf had killed Josiah Pederson? You remember how he did that, Sean?”
Sean’s eyes were still aimed at the table. “Mind probe.”
“Those buddies of yours, if they get caught...”
“The first question Commander Inmohotep is gonna ask under mind probe is, ‘Who was on Earth, pushing those logs through?’” said Sean. “And then the relentless Commander will be here hunting me down. But it would have all worked out perfectly if Gustafson hadn’t somehow ended up over there.
“Now they’re gonna have to find a way to send him back and, with the return address spoofed, they’re either gonna have to recover the original coordinates for that device from the SDE database, or I’ve got to unspoof that address — set it back to the coordinates of this location. And then somebody has to go over there and lead him back.”
“Unless he’s already on that moon in the whatever galaxy,” said Walsh.
Sean’s eyes finally left the table, moving slowly upward to meet Walsh’s. “Yeah, unless. I better get started. We can’t depend on my clanmates to do the right thing here. They are criminals, after all. They just might decide Gustafson is expendable.
“And besides, when they look up that address in the SDE database, it’ll set off all kinds of alarms. They’re gonna have to explain why they need to know that address. It all makes me think that the easiest solution for them is, well...”
“Why are you so sure that they haven’t already sent Ollie to that galaxy, uh... wherever?” said Walsh.
Cindy had calmed down and now sat again at the table. “Doesn’t matter, Jim. We’ve got to try. If we don’t, I doubt we’ll ever see Ollie again.”
Sean stood, found a flashlight, and headed for the door.
“I’m comin’ too,” said Cindy. “Hey, where did you put the original address that you need to set that thing back to?”
Sean stopped in his tracks. “Jeez. I never wrote it down. There’s no way I could ever go back there. I’m a wanted criminal on Sirius Prime. So I just changed it.”
Walsh sprang to his feet and let loose, bellowing, “Damn! You didn’t write it down? You didn’t write it down! You didn’t...”
“Jim!” Cindy shouted. “Get a grip!” She put a hand on Walsh’s shoulder and guided him back to his chair. “I know you go to church. I think this might be the time when you start praying for a miracle.”
* * *
“You see, Esteemed Sheriff Gustafson, we need to be able to explain why you are here, and why we have to look up that hardware address to send you back.”
“Look, Black-Eyes, just call me Ollie, OK? And why are you sucking up to me suddenly?”
“I am not processing...”
“Treating me so nice, calling me ‘esteemed’ and all.”
“We need your cooperation. Not only will it ensure your safe return home, it will also save our skinny necks.”
“So you guys are corrupt SDE agents, eh? You’re smuggling oak from Earth, am I right?”
“Yes, and we must, at all costs, avoid a mind probe. Mind probes require a court order, and those require solid evidence. Our lives are over if they find a legal reason to probe us. We must create a cover reason for you to be here. Thus, donuts.”
The light went on for Gustafson. “I get it. I came here to...”
“That is correct. Now, I must start this process. I will soon look up the coordinates for your return. You must say precisely what I’m about to tell you when Esteemed Commander Inmohotep arrives. And that will be very soon, I assure you.”
* * *
There were no clocks in Gustafson’s comfortable cell, but it seemed like roughly an hour had passed when the door again slid open. Two black-eyed Sirians entered, one in the familiar uniform of the SDE: a black, form-fitting tunic with a dramatic red curved symbol filling much of the chest. It was a uniform that Gustafson had first seen at the doorway of Wolf’s oak resort the previous winter.
“Commander Inmohetep?” said Gustafson, extending his hand.
The Commander stared at Gustafson’s hand a second then lightly brushed it with his. “I recognize you from the gray hairy matter under your nose and your large circumference, Sheriff. Truly a pleasure.”
“The pleasure is all mine, Commander. I trust my companion here has explained our new business venture?”
“Yes, and what an excellent idea it is. Do you have any idea how much Sirians would be willing to pay, in pure gold, for genuine donuts, freshly shipped from Earth? I only hope you have a very large facility to produce the massive quantities that we will surely demand.”
Gustafson nodded, not speaking for fear of saying something that would make the Commander suspicious.
Commander Inmohotep moved a step closer and said softly, “And perhaps you’ve brought samples?”
“I’m afraid your greedy officers here have gobbled them all up already, Commander. I don’t think they anticipated that you’d be here.”
“Yes, of course. But what Sirian wouldn’t snatch every donut in sight if he could? Still I am perplexed by something. Why are my officers querying the hardware address of your transporter? That should never be necessary.”
Black-Eyes answered, “When Esteemed Sheriff Gustafson arrived, his associated hardware address indicated he had come from the Andromeda galaxy. That was clearly wrong. We had to get the right coordinates.”
The Commander walked out into the hall and paced up and down. Minutes passed before he finally stopped, then slowly walked back into the room. “It must have been spoofed. There is no other explanation. Someone on Earth must be trying to smuggle oak logs here again. Sheriff, you have almost been the victim of this illegal activity, and it is most fortunate that my officers noticed this anomaly or you would surely be dead by now.”
“Well, I do appreciate their fine work. You can be proud of these men,” said Gustafson.
“Yes, indeed,” the Commander agreed. “We will send you back now, but I will see you on Earth just as soon as I arrange a task force to hunt down the criminals who did this terrible thing. I trust I will have your cooperation, Sheriff Gustafson?”
* * *
They’d broken out two of the bottles of fine wine that Sean had brought by the case from Chicago back in the days when his oak business was at its peak. Sitting silently at the table, they avoided eye contact, staring into space or at the table. It felt a lot like a funeral, though nobody dared say it. They’d already finished one bottle and Cindy was pouring another round when there was a loud pounding on the door.
“What in heavens name...” said Walsh.
Sean jumped up and opened the door. Ollie Gustafson burst through, acting as though he’d just been out for a walk.
Cindy leapt into the air and screeched with joy. Walsh’s face lit up in a huge grin. “Ollie, they sent you back!”
“No time for idle chatter, folks,” said Gustafson. “Lots of work to do. We’ve got to ship a hell of a lot of donuts over there and soon. Oh, and Sean, you and I are gonna have a little heart-to-heart about causing trouble in my jurisdiction, and then you’d better be on the next plane back to Hawaii. Tomorrow wouldn’t be too soon.”
The Sheriff grabbed the full glass of wine out of Walsh’s hand and drained it in one huge gulp. Then he noticed the bowl of cheese curds on the table. “Hmm, I wonder if they’d like these, too.”
Copyright © 2015 by Bill Kowaleski