Another story by my strainge-fiction persona, Eric Stringer…..
Mr. Thomas Pilsen was about to have a terrible time getting to the airport. He was sure of it. The cab was late, but as the cabbie said while checking the Timex strapped to the side of beef he called an arm, “Hey, only by six minutes. You need’a chill out, pal.” He’d tapped his own chest. “Hey, trust me. I know. Heart stuff, y’know? You keep freakin’ over little stuff, you’ll be like me. Heart stuff.” Then he got into the driver’s seat. Through the rolled-down window, he said, “So you comin’ or what?”
Pilsen looked at him, then opened the back door and slipped into the cab.
As he settled into the back seat, he glared at the back of the man’s head. His hair was cut short, but it was black, lightly salted.
Guy’s prob’ly 40, he thought. Amazing he’s made it this far in th’game. He felt the reassuring bulge in his coat pocket, reached up to lightly tug on the brim of his imaginary fedora.
Yeah, yeah… I remember him now. He was recruited to the Pocredo family and only recently moved over. By all accounts he’s a goodfella on his way up. Another year, he’d’a been made. Unfortunate, y’know? But what’cha gonna do? What the boss wants, the boss gets. He reached his hand into his coat pocket for his—
“Hey, so where we goin’ again?”
“Pardon me? Oh, the airport.”
The cabbie snorted. “Yeah, genius, I know the airport. But where at the airport. What airline, y’know?”
“Oh… yes… yes, of course… the United terminal, please.”
The man looked at him in the rear-view mirror. “Hey, I like that. Please, huh? Shows class. You’re all right.”
“Yeah, hey, it’s nothin’. An’ you know….” He shrugged. “Sorry about that genius thing too. I didn’t mean nothin’. Long day.”
Fuggita— fuggidabout— fuggidaboudit. He wasn’t sure he could pull that off without a little more practice. Leaving De Niro behind, he opted for Liota. “Hey, no problem. We all got days like that, eh?” Not bad.
He casually reached inside his jacket for his cigarettes, then remembered he’d never smoked. He settled back in his seat again, trying to think of something to do with his hands. It’s good to be high up an’ have your own driver. I could really get used to this.
He moved his hand toward his coat pocket again. Still, what the boss wants, the boss—
“Hey, funny how it works out, eh? Looks like we’ll be there even sooner than if I wasn’t late back at your place.”
He put his hand back in his lap with the other one. Pesci took over. Yeah, funny how t’ings work out… the boss’ll just have to understand. “That sounds fine. Thanks.”
Pilsen had assumed, like everything else in his life, the cab ride would be a necessary evil. The six-minute delay at the beginning probably would translate into a much longer delay. First they would be caught in rush-hour traffic that had begun precisely four minutes earlier (so they would have been ahead of it had the cabbie been on time). Then, as a direct result of being caught in the rush-hour traffic, they would be trapped in a traffic jam that was only two minutes old when they joined it.
True to the cabbie’s word, fortunately—but the cabbie assured him, “Hey, it ain’t got nothin’ to do with good fortune,” then winked—they had arrived at the United outbound terminal fifteen minutes sooner than Pilsen had anticipated.
The cabbie started to get out.
Pilsen said, “It’s all right. I can manage, thanks.” Stay right where you are.
As the cabbie settled back into his seat, Pilsen stepped out of the cab, hooking the handles of his overnight bag and his briefcase with his left hand.
He stepped up to the cabbie’s window, his right hand in his coat pocket. Now, quick! Do it!
He whipped out his wallet, pulled a fifty from the slip, and handed it to the cabbie. “Keep the change, bub. Hey, an’ keep your head down.”
Nicholson? How’d he slip in? He made a gun with his thumb and forefinger, then used it to push up the brim of his imaginary fedora.
The cabbie frowned. “Huh?”
Pilsen turned away, shifted his overnight bag to his right hand and walked into the airport.
He stepped into a very long line at the counter. Like everyone else, he had a ticket and had even printed his boarding pass, but he still had to present it to— He leaned over and looked past the line.
The young lady at the counter was an attractive brunette who appeared to be in her mid-twenties. Pilsen momentarily wondered why she wasn’t flying. But are stewardesses and counter-persons the same job? Probably not. Do they even call them stewardesses anymore?
He glanced around as he shuffled forward in the line, looking out through the massive windows at the various lanes of tarmac in the distance, then back at the tunnel that connected this hub to the main terminal. The tunnel had seemed a mile long. It reminded him of some of the “tubes” in NASA’s photos of the moon and even of Mars. He drew his attention back to the hub itself, the uncomfortable chairs, the various kiosks (all closed), and again, those massive windows.
Something wasn’t quite right. A janitor in wrinkled grey coveralls with the airport logo over one pocket and his name sewn over the other interrupted his reverie, pushing a cart along in front of the row of windows.
Pilsen was annoyed for a moment, but then it struck him. The hub was huge, yet it contained only one janitor and only three gates, one on either side and one at the end. Odd. I wonder what they land here other than United Airlines planes. If the hub were only for jets, it could easily service departure gates for six or eight of even the really large planes.
Then he looked more closely and noted that three of the windows—again, one on each side and one on the end, each of the three situated to the left of a particular gate—had the same flaw. Momentarily he thought to call it to the janitor’s attention, but the man had disappeared.
He looked at the windows again. Each window seemed to reflect a smoothly curved, gargantuan object that would appear, if it were solid and not merely a reflection, to be some sort of brushed stainless steel. Or aircraft aluminum. He snapped his fingers. Interplanetary shuttles! They could land no more than three interplanetary shuttles here at a given time. Of course, that’s exactly what they’re doing.
He briefly accessed his memory. Yes… I remember now… ever since the Stanusian Invasion four years ago, the Stanusians—a blue race of humanoids, but slightly larger overall than humans—have been shuttling humans to their home world to work the mines. The… the air? No, the rocks!
The rocks beneath the ground on Stanus 4 seep molecules that render the air in the mines poisonous to Stanusians, but that same air is like a fountain of youth for humans. The chronological age is unaffected, of course. After all, who would want to revert all the way back to the agonies of childhood? Pilsen shuddered. But for every three months a human works in the mine, the deterioration of his cells is reversed by… a week? No, a month! Yes, that’s it! And who wouldn’t want—
The huge, burly man behind the counter shouted, “Next!” His blue-tinged skin flushed a shade of violet as he leaned to his left and glared at the next man in line. “You! I said next!”
Tom Pilsen, now in the new grey coveralls he’d been issued by Stanus Mining, shuffled one step forward but hesitated, waiting for the man ahead of him to finish gathering his paperwork and his combination keycard and identification badge.
“Whaddyou waitin’ for?” the blue man yelled, still glancing past the other man as if he weren’t there. From what Pilsen had seen and heard since the invasion, yelling was a typical Stanusian trait.
“I’m just waiting until this gentleman gathers his—”
The big man half-stood, put his hand on the other man’s side and shoved him out of the way. “You got your crap! Get on the damn shuttle!”
Still trying to secure his paperwork and identification badge in an envelope, the man hurried through a door behind the desk to the left.
The Stanusian turned his attention back to Pilsen. “You, get up here if you wanna job! I ain’t got but one nerve left and you’re dancin’ on it!” Then he muttered, “One nerve left, one job left, one applicant left… just my luck the last damn guy in line would be slow as hell.”
Tom Pilsen took another step forward, filling the void left by the previous man. “Sorry, I—”
The blue man straightened to his full 7’2” and leaned forward over the desk. “I, I, I… that’s all you humans ever think about. Well I need you to pay attention so I can be done for the day! That all right with you?”
“Well? You gotta application, or am I gonna have to fill that out for you too?”
“N-no sir. I gotta… I mean, I have an application right here.” He opened his side pack and riffled through a few papers. “It’s right here… somewhere. The disk is so small. I mean, I put it in an envelope, but still it’s hard to—”
The blue man flushed a darker shade of violet. “Gimme the damn thing an’ I’ll find it! I swear, if you go any slower I’m gonna—”
“Here it is!” Pilsen pulled a small envelope from his side pack, held it up and tore open the end of it with a flourish. In a sing-song voice, he said, “Open your hand; here it comes.”
The big man frowned. “Stop playin’ games. What is it with you people?” But he extended one hand, cupped, palm up.
Pilsen tipped the envelope. “Here you are… with my compliments.”
The disk dropped lightly into the blue man’s palm. He glanced at it, then glanced at the man. “What? With your compliments? What’s that supposed to mean? I ought’a just crush the—”
He closed his fist around it, then screamed. Incredible waves of pain radiated through his fist, then up his arm, and washed down through his body. His eyes wide, his mouth gaping, he tried to open his fist, drop the disk, but it and his fist and his arm were already gone almost to the elbow, dissolved into a fine blue powder.
He frantically took a step back from his desk, as if trying to back away from a disease, and knocked his chair over. He stepped through the rungs as he watched his left arm sift away bit by bit. It was gone almost to the shoulder. His eyes still huge and round, he pointed at Pilsen with his right index finger. “You! I’m gonna tear your—” His left shoulder and part of his neck and throat dissolved into dust, along with his vocal chords.
Calmly, Pilsen said, “You aren’t gonna tear anything, blue boy. You’ll go straight to hell where you belong. Enjoy the trip.” By the time the smirk crossed his face, the blue man’s head had dropped on the floor behind him and the anomaly had moved to his chin and lower jaw. Then his body dropped to its knees and collapsed forward, and the anomaly continued working on that end too, eating through his torso and down his left side.
Pilsen smugly picked up the last identification badge and keycard from the desk. He sneered at the pile of blue dust and walked through the door to the shuttle.
Inside the plane, the same brunette Pilsen had seen earlier looked at his boarding pass and showed him to his seat. She offered to help him with his briefcase and his overnight bag.
Briefcase? He glanced down. He was dressed once again in his grey pinstripe suit. He smiled at the woman. “Thank you. I’ll keep the briefcase with me.” He handed her the light overnight bag. “This could go in the overhead though.”
She smiled. “All righty.” She slipped it into the bin, where it fit perfectly and filled the bin. She closed the door of the bin, then gestured toward his seat. “You’re right here. If you need anything, don’t hesitate to use the call button.”
Pilsen sat down and strapped himself into the aisle seat without looking at the man sitting next to the window. When Pilsen was settled, the man said, “Thanks. I mean, for trying to be polite back there.”
“Pardon?” Pilsen looked up. It was the man who had been in line in front of him for the mining company job. Very odd. Pilsen grinned. “No problem. Are you—”
The man pulled the lapel of his brown sports jacket aside. Beneath was a sleek grey coverall. He grinned. “Next stop, the mines of Stanus 4.”
* * * * * * *