It had become clear that it simply wasn't safe for the young alien boy Jahv to go out in public. Disguises worked to a certain degree, but Jahv was simply too inexperienced with the culture and the way Earth-people acted to ever fit in. However, that didn't mean that he had to be out of touch with his new homeworld. Certainly he had friends like Niklas and Davy, who had rescued him from the nearby pond into which he'd fallen when he first arrived, and Keith and Martin, whom had met Jahv more recently, introduced to him by Davy. And, of course, there were other ways to study the world.
Everyone had pretty much agreed that the best way for someone who couldn't actually go "out there" and explore, would be to do so by computer. Unfortunately, the computer that Jahv had brought out of his seemingly bottomless backpack was totally incompatible with anything built on Earth. That meant having to somehow procure a computer for Jahv to use.
For a bunch of kids with no substantial sources of income, who couldn't very well explain to anyone what the computer was needed for, this would not be easy. Jahv was fairly well convinced that even if all Davy and the others could locate were various components and parts, even in poor condition, he could assemble them into something that would work with this world's computer systems. The technology was, by his standards, simplistic enough that even though it was of obvious "foreign" origin, he could work with it.
This resulted in the four boys, in their spare time, searching behind electronics stores, business dumpsters, and wherever else they could think of to look to see what they could come up with. What amazed all of them was what large businesses actually threw away. Within less than two weeks, they had salvaged a huge mess of assorted computer components, including a CD-Rom drive, cables, various plug-in boards, a couple of disc drives, "outdated" software, and various other items out of a wide range of dumpsters.
The real break had come when Niklas and Davy had been caught lugging a huge, intact monitor away from alongside somebody's trash can on a neighboring street. The owner had come out and asked what they wanted with it. They explained, more or less truthfully, that they were building their own computer system out of spare parts as a special project for when school started in the fall. The owner, himself a computer builder, had just upgraded to an even larger monitor, and not only let the boys take the monitor, but gave them $20 to help them. That went towards a brand-new keyboard for the computer, the one item they hadn't been able locate a decent enough specimen of for the project.
Jahv's dome-tent looked like an electronic junkpile for a while, as the young alien boy sought to make sense out of the technology. He grasped it readily enough, though, and roughly a week later had built his computer. The end result was a nightmarish miasma of components, including even a few from Jahv's own computer that he'd somehow managed to integrate into the final contraption, that looked to be one part Star Trek, two parts Radio Shack, and three parts of half-junked God-knows-what held together with the technological equivalent of adhesive tape and bubble gum.
Just turning the thing on resulted in a racket that sounded like a cross between a chipmunk and a lawn mower. But the silly thing worked. It not only worked, but it had enough memory capacity so that as soon as Jahv was able to get online, through of all things a satellite link he'd rigged up, he'd been able to download all the additional software he needed.
The thing was probably second only to computers one would find at NASA or the Pentagon. It wasn't just a computer, either. Thanks to the satellite link, Jahv was also able to use the device as a television set, and had also hooked a video game unit into it. Among their rummagings, Keith had come up with a broken down Playstation unit.
Jahv had quickly turned into an experienced hacker. If he'd been using an actual modem, half the business corporations on the planet probably would have tracked him down by now. He'd downloaded "beta" versions for video games the others hadn't even heard of, and had recently picked up designs for some of the planned aliens for "Star Wars Episode 2". This, of course, got him more than a few weird looks from the rest of the boys when he pointed at one particularly bizarre specimen of LucasFilm life and remarked, "Hey, I know this guy!"
On this particular day, Davy and Keith had headed out to Jahv's cloaked dome-tent. Martin had told Keith he'd join them later in the afternoon. Davy had found a discarded VCR and wondered if Jahv would be able to somehow hook it into the entire mess. Keith speculated that if they had found a microwave oven, Jahv would probably be able to hook THAT into the computer and program his meals in advance.
Not that Jahv needed such a device. One of his more wondrous machines was a food replicator that seemed to make meals out of thin air.
Jahv had been delighted to receive the VCR, but didn't plan to hook it up immediately. He was in the midst of testing a new program, but invited Davy and Keith in to spend some time and see what happened, anyway.
As usual, Jahv was stark naked when Davy and Keith arrived. Children on Jahv's homeworld didn't wear clothing except in special circumstances like space travel. Since it was yet another hot summer day, neither Davy nor Keith were wearing much, either. Keith was wearing denim shorts and sandals, and Davy had shown up wearing his usual coveralls, which he'd discarded once he'd entered the tent, so he was just wearing his boxer shorts.
Davy had come to regard Jahv as one of his best friends, and since he lived closest to the pond near where Jahv had pitched his tent, visited as often as possible. Keith, on the other hand, saw in Jahv something of a kindred spirit. Jahv had run away from home, literally light years, something Keith had considered doing more than once, and had nearly accomplished one time, if not on the light-years scale.
"So, what are you up to?" asked Davy, as the three boys gathered around the computer.
"I just recently found out that this planet has a huge radio telescope, aimed at the stars, picking up radio signals." said Jahv. "It's in a place called Arecibo, Puerto Rico." Jahv's mastery of language had come a long way. Even though he'd picked up on the language early on by a brief telepathic contact with Niklas, his pronunciation of names had taken longer.
"So what are you planning to do, bug it?" asked Keith.
"Something like that." replied Jahv.
Keith's eyes went wide. Sometimes, as interesting as he found Jahv, the alien made him a little nervous. For all his sophistication and technological know-how, Jahv was still a kid just like them, and even less learned in the ways of this particular world. Even electronically breaking into a huge facility like Arecibo seemed like asking for trouble.
"That's not gonna get you caught, is it?" asked Keith. None of them liked thinking about what might happen if Jahv's existence were ever discovered by grown-ups. Even the most understanding of their parents would have trouble with something like this.
"No." replied Jahv. "I'm just putting myself on the same reception frequency."
Moments later, streams of static burst forth from the computer's speaker.
"So much for that idea." remarked Keith.
"Actually, I think those are broadcasts from my homeworld!" said Jahv, amazed.
"What?" said Keith. "That was nothing but noise."
Davy was grinning. "You've never heard Jahv speak in his native language, have you?"
"What's that got to do with it?" asked Keith.
"Jahv, say something to him." suggested Davy. "In your own language."
Jahv grinned, looked at Keith, and let loose a string of noise that sounded a whole lot like what was coming through the speaker.
Keith's eyebrows shot up. "Okay, can I get a translation on that?"
"Actually, it was a very complicated joke." explained Jahv. "There's only five races in the galaxy that even get it when it's told, and if you don't know the difference between a three-humped groslark and a five-toed shreekel, it makes no sense at all."
Keith rolled his eyes. "Forget I said anything. You ever get found out, I think we'll just try to get you turned over to George Lucas. So you understand that static that's coming out of the speakers?"
"More or less. Reception's pretty bad. It's standard broadcasts. It seems to be crossing a weather report from my home province with a comedy program that's currently the top show on my planet." said Jahv. "One minute I'm getting wind advisories for hovercars above City Level 5, the next I'm hearing the punchline to the one about the niffle-herder and the krax-farmer."
Davy interjected, "These broadcasts must be pretty old to have come this far across space."
Admittedly, even Jahv wasn't entirely sure how far he'd traveled, but his homeworld was certainly not in this solar system, which automatically put it light years away. Jahv shook his head. "A lot of stuff gets broadcast through hyperspace, for our colony worlds. Same-day broadcast. Unless I lost some time coming to this world, which I don't think I did, this is for today's date." He listened some more to the static. "Yes, there it is. 25th day of Orbital Rotation Period 27552. That's today."
There was a sudden squeal of static, louder than the others.
"Jeez! What was that?!" exclaimed Keith. "If they picked that up at Arecibo -- !"
"I doubt they did." said Jahv. "I've been fine-tuning more precisely than they can. But that was a personal message blip. Who in the world -- " Jahv replayed the squeal at a slower speed. It still sounded like static to Davy and Keith, but Jahv actually turned a paler shade of green when he heard it.
"You okay?" asked Davy.
"I don't believe it. That was directed at me!" said Jahv in little more than a whisper.
"Oh, great." said Keith. "Probably an invasion force thinking you got kidnapped or something. Game over, fans. I'll be under the bed until the end of the world."
Davy gave Keith an odd look, but Jahv seemed oblivious to it. "No, nothing like that. It's -- it's my little brother!"
"Your what?!" Davy and exclaimed simultaneously. Davy added, "You never mentioned him."
"He wouldn't come with me when I ran away." said Jahv. "Now he wants to come here. Not that he knows where I am. He's asking me to send coordinates. Says he's ready to leave home. He says mom and dad were really angry when I left, and they've been taking it out on him."
"Can you get him here?" asked Keith, suddenly sympathetic.
"I think so." said Jahv, fingers flying over the keyboard. First he called up a map of Earth, centering on the region where they were now. He mapped it out in grids so tight that Davy estimated they couldn't've been more than a quarter-mile wide. Long series of numbers ran past on the screen. The image of the Earth pulled back, and then so did the entire solar system.
"I'm tracing the broadcast. This may take a while." explained Jahv.
"Jahv, as advanced as you people are -- this sort of thing -- what your parents are doing to your little brother -- still happens?" asked Davy.
Jahv sighed. "We're a peaceful people, but we're also very disciplined. You just don't go breaking up families. That's why I can never return home, even if I wanted to. Technically, what I did was a pretty serious crime. But I just -- couldn't -- stay. I was afraid that -- " Jahv let loose a short burst of static that was obviously his brother's name " -- might suffer as a result. That's why I tried to get him to come with me, but he wouldn't -- then."
"You want to turn that name into something the rest of us can pronounce?" asked Keith.
Jahv pondered the question. Technically, the "name" he used with his friends was just the first syllable of his full name, which in reality traced over five generations of ancestry. What could his brother be called using the same principle? "Keyro."
"Are your parents ever likely to come looking for you?" asked Davy.
Jahv shook his head. "The penalty for what I did, and what Keyro intends, is permanent banishment from the family. If my parents tried to find us, they'd be banished. They won't risk that. Their work is too important to them."
The computer beeped. Actually, it sounded more like it farted, but the point was that the results Jahv had been waiting for were ready. "Coordinates received." said Jahv, quickly working the computer. "Altering satellite dish to send, compensating for hyperspace transmission, and -- "
"Hold it." said Davy. "Are you sending him the exact same coordinates you used?"
"I was planning to. Why?" asked Jahv.
"You came in over water, remember?" said Davy. "Knocked you out and Niklas and I had to fish you out. You want to put your little brother through that?"
Jahv cringed. "You're right. He swims well, but the transmatrix can be disorienting, especially over such a distance. I'll adjust the coordinates a bit." Jahv typed a new series of numbers into the computer. "And -- broadcasting."
"How soon before we get a response?" asked Keith.
"How long does it take you to talk on the telephone?" replied Jahv. "Should be almost instantaneous."
Another squeal of static came through the computer. Jahv processed it. "He's received the coordinates, and says he'll be here in about a deci-cycle. That's about one of your hours."
"Where's he going to be landing, or materializing, or whatever?" asked Keith.
"About a quarter-mile northwest of the pond. The other side from us." explained Jahv.
Davy's eyes went wide with alarm. "Oh, NO! Not over there! Are you serious?"
"Is there a problem?" asked Jahv.
"Yeah, what are you talking about?" asked Keith.
"I'd better show you." said Davy.
"If this is the receiving point for Keyro, I'd better put on my spacesuit." said Jahv.
"Why?" asked Davy. "It's just as isolated as this area."
"Yes, but Keyro will be arriving wearing a spacesuit. It would be rude." explained Jahv.
Davy decided to put his coveralls back on while Jahv stepped into his spacesuit. Keith was wearing everything he'd arrived in, which admittedly wasn't much, but was sufficient.
The three boys trekked through the woods, away from the pond, northwest, until they came upon the region Davy was so concerned about. Surrounded by trees was a huge expanse of mud. It wasn't exactly a swamp, or some stagnant pool. It was just plain brown mud, a huge spread of it about forty feet across, Keith guessed. Maybe a bit more.
"This is what you were so concerned about?" said Keith, picking up a fist-sized rock and tossing it out. The mud was obviously rather thick, but not so much that there wasn't a satisfying SPLAT when the rock hit and sank.
"You don't understand, because you don't live around here." said Davy. "This area is supposed to be haunted. A couple of kids fell into this years ago and were never heard from again. It's full of sinkholes. Sucked them right down."
"You've been hanging around too many summer camp story sessions or something." said Keith. "Sinkholes? Either that, or that's a story some parents came up with to keep their kids from getting muddy. I can't believe you'd be afraid of this."
Jahv had brought his backpack with him, and had pulled out some sort of device that whistled when he waved it in the direction of the mud pool. "Analysis indicates no sign of sinkholes. And no -- missing children, either, or the remains thereof. Depth is a fairly consistent 14 inches. Shallow point at the edge about six inches. Deepest point about 22 inches."
"Not quite waist deep at the worst, then." said Keith.
"Thickness might result in us getting stuck, but it wouldn't be impossible to extract ourselves given the equipment I have in the backpack." said Jahv.
Davy chewed his lower lip. He trusted Jahv, but the stories had been told for years. There was one question that had always bugged him. "Any idea what could cause this place?"
"Soil seems to be unusually unstable. Apparently this was once part of the same pond where we go swimming." said Jahv. "It broke off from it, but somehow still receives water from it, just enough to maintain it as mud, mixed with the soil. It's weird, but not dangerous."
"And your little brother Keyro is going to land right in it." said Keith, trying not to laugh. "Welcome to Earth. SPLAT!"
"In fact, he'll probably be arriving quite soon." said Jahv.
"I've been meaning to ask you something ever since we met." said Davy. "Just how much stuff do you have in that backpack, and how did you get it all in there?"
"The inside is exponentially larger than the outside." replied Jahv. "Just like my home."
"But how's that possible?" asked Davy.
"Heads up, guys!" said Keith. "I think you're going to have to get your explanation later! Something's happening!"
A high-pitched wail started to come seemingly out of nowhere. Davy had been through this once before and was already holding his ears. Jahv had reached up to cover his antennae. The wail grew so loud that, even Davy, who was ready for it, found it painful. Keith was on his knees holding his ears. Then a light started to appear, right in mid air, about twelve feet above the mud.
Jahv was instantly concerned. "He's too high! He's too high up!"
"Pray for a soft landing!" yelled Davy, almost unable to hear his own voice.
Then, as when Jahv had first appeared, there was a crack of thunder, and the light seemed to explode. What felt like a gust of wind knocked the three boys backwards. The light was gone, the wail had stopped -- and something made a very loud, deep SPLAT in the mud.
Keith was shaking his head. "Brother, you guys sure know how to make an entrance. Every dog for two miles must be deaf by now."
"No time for that!" said Jahv, sounding panicked. "Keyro is out there, and he's stuck!"
Indeed, something was flapping around in the mud, clearly unable to extricate itself.
"I warned you about this place!" said Davy rather sharply.
"Give it a rest, Davy." replied Keith. "Anything'd get stuck in deep mud coming in from a height like that. Let's get out there and get him. This could be fun."
"Fun?!" exclaimed Davy.
Keith turned back with a slight grin. "Have I mentioned that my 'dad' is also a neat freak? He once whupped me for getting grass stains on my pants. This is the opportunity of a lifetime!" Keith took three steps into the mud and it was already halfway up to his knees. The grin on his face turned downright silly. "Cool." he remarked.
"Need I remind you that we're on a rescue mission here?" said Jahv, who was already marching out even further towards his mud-covered brother, having taken just enough time to remove his large boots.
"Not that you don't have a point." Davy gave up and followed. He had to admit, the mud felt very weird, squishing between his toes and climbing up his legs, even under the coveralls, as he headed out into the deeper area where Keyro had landed. But it felt kind of fun, too. And the ground at the bottom felt stable enough.
"Whoops!" exclaimed Keith, who apparently hit a slippery spot and went flying backwards. Davy caught up to him and pulled him out. About all of Keith that wasn't plastered with mud at this point was his face and part of his chest.
"Thanks." said Keith. "Boy, my old man would be so pissed off if he saw me looking like this."
"That's why you're enjoying it, aren't you?" remarked Davy.
"Oh, come on, tell me this isn't fun." said Keith.
"Okay, it is, but we've still got an alien to rescue." replied Davy, managing to grin nonetheless.
As it turned out, it was Jahv who reached the mud-covered being first. He gently lifted Keyro to his feet and spoke to him in those strange bursts of static that were their language. Keyro seemed to be about the same height, and Davy and Keith assumed as such that he was probably about the same age, as their younger friend Martin. That was about all they could determine about the boy, too. He was trying to wipe his eyes clear of the mud, but given that his hands were just as plastered, that wasn't proving to be very successful.
It was at that moment that Martin rode up on his bicycle. He was wearing his swim shorts, and had tied his shirt to the handlebars.
"Hey, you guys! What happened to you!?" he called.
"Alien retrieval." said Davy.
Martin did a quick headcount and noticed the second pair of antennae. "Is that what all that noise was about? I was at the pond and I saw this bright light and crack of thunder."
"Yeah, we've got another one." said Keith.
"We also have a problem." said Jahv. "He says he's rather thoroughly stuck, and I don't think we can get enough leverage in here to boost him out."
"Must've been the landing." said Keith.
"He says his boots are full of mud and the fasteners are jammed." explained Jahv.
"Would another person help?" asked Davy. "we could get Martin out here."
"Hey, Martin!" called Keith. "Get out here! We need help!"
Martin shook his head. "I'm not coming out there! My mom and dad would have a fit if I got that muddy!"
"For pete's sake, you can clean up in the pond! Our newest arrival is stuck in his own boots!" yelled Keith. "We gotta drag him out."
"Wait." said Jahv. "Martin, do you see my backpack?"
Martin looked around. "Yes, here it is!"
"Look inside." said Jahv. "You may have to rummage around a bit. There should be a long length of red-colored cord in there with a weight on the end. Find it."
Martin opened the backpack. "How much stuff you got in here? I don't have this much stuff in my entire closet!" He shifted dozens of items around, and finally saw the red-colored rope. He pulled it out. "Is this it?"
"Yes!" called Jahv. "Unwrap the rope, and throw the weighted end out this way."
"There's no way he can get it out this far." whispered Keith. "He's not strong enough."
"He won't have to be. The weight is aerodynamically designed." replied Jahv, just as the weight splattered into the mud right in front of them.
"Did you see that throw?" yelped Martin. "Wow!" The boy had a huge grin.
"Very impressive." said Jahv. "Now tie the other end off around a tree. As strong a knot as you can make."
"How dependent are we on his knot-tying abilities?" asked Keith.
"Not very." replied Jahv. "The cord is self-adhesive. Doesn't stick to anything else, but put a knot in it, and that knot will stay put until you use the molecular reverser attached to the weighted end on it."
Martin had found a good strong tree and had wrapped the rope around it and tied a large, strange knot in the rope. "Okay!"
"We're going to have to guide Keyro in." said Jahv. "He's not strong enough to overcome the pull of the mud on his boots."
With Davy and Keith bracing Keyro on either side, and Jahv pulling from the front and keeping a hand on the rope, while Martin held the rope from shore, which essentially he didn't need to do, but none of the others wanted to make him feel useless, the newest alien arrival was slowly dragged to shore. Finally, four mud-covered youngsters slogged out of the thick morass of mud.
"That was great!" laughed Keith. "We're gonna have to do that sometime when we're not rescuing somebody."
"It was fun, wasn't it?" said Davy.
"But -- " said Keith, speaking seriously but with a wicked grin on his face, "we owe our rescue to Martin! Let's all give him a big hug!"
"Hey!" protested Martin, eyes suddenly wide. "Wait! Back off, you guys!" But it was far too late. Seconds later, Martin was almost as mud-covered as the other four. "Aw, jeez. What's my mom and dad gonna say?!"
"Nothing, if you go wash up in the pond." said Keith. "But if we're going to clean up based on need first, then I think Jahv's little brother should be the first to take a dip."
"I agree." replied Jahv.
The five youngsters slogged their way back to the pond. Keyro was still stuck in his boots, and the rest of his uniform, which weighted him down and caused him to stumble a few times. At one point, he managed to clean off one hand well enough to touch his older brother's relatively clean face, and through a brief telepathic contact picked up on the language. His first words in English were, "You people have the strangest terrain on this planet."
"Be grateful you didn't land on a pile of rocks." said Keith. "You came in pretty high."
Keyro looked at Jahv. "I didn't have time to double-check the coordinates. Mom and Dad almost caught me."
"Almost doesn't count in light years." said Jahv, putting his arm around his brother. "Glad you made it."
The group reached the pond, and Davy and Keith tossed Keyro in when he expressed some hesitation at getting so soaking wet with all his clothes on. Of course, once he was in the water, his clothes emerged from underwater even before he did. Jahv and Martin followed suit, Martin discarding his shorts once he was convinced they were clean, and Jahv's uniform went floating shortly thereafter. When Keyro finally did surface, his appearance presented a shock to the three boys, including Keith and Davy who were still on shore.
Given how tan the immediate region of water had turned, they figured it would be best to let the mud dissipate before washing. Keyro was not green. He had the same white hair, wide eyes, and antennae of Jahv. But his skin was a bright lavendar purple.
"Are you sure you got the right kid?" remarked Keith.
"Yes, of course!" said Jahv, giving his little brother an affectionate hug. "Why do you ask?"
"You're green and he's -- purple!" said Keith.
"So?" answered Jahv. "Our mother is blue and our father is orange. Didn't I mention that we come in all sorts of different colors?"
"Must be an interesting planet." said Davy quietly.
"Colorful, anyway." added Keith.
Jahv was still talking. "And I have an aunt who's bright yellow, a cousin who's a very intense red, and a third great-aunt who's actually several colors of camouflage. There's always one freak in the family. Supposedly I've got a great-grandfather who was clear, but no one's seen him for years."
Even Davy, Keith, and Martin got that one, and winced.
"And my mother once told me about a multi-great uncle who was plaid, but I never saw any holographs of him, so I never quite believed that one..."
"Your thoughts?" asked Davy.
"I think we should've left them both in the mud." replied Keith.
"Well, WE can always go back there, now that we know it's safe." suggested Davy.
Keith grinned. "Race you!"
"Wait up!" called Martin, as the two older boys took off. He'd had enough of Jahv's family humor, as well.
"Hey, what did I say?" yelled Jahv.
"You hadda mention the 'clear grandfather' joke, didn't you?" said Keyro.
"Well, they wouldn't've gotten the one about the niffle-herder and the krax-farmer." replied Jahv.
Jahv hugging KeyroKeyro groaned. "I think I'd rather get muddy again than listen to that! At least I won't get stuck this time." And the younger of the two aliens took off to follow the three running boys.
Finally, Jahv decided to give in and followed the others. And so, shortly thereafter, there were five boys playing in a previously, presumably haunted expanse of mud. As it happened, once of the boys was green, and another one was pale purple. But under a coating of mud, who can tell?