I only did it because I needed the money. Honest. I didn’t set out to get into such a complicated situation. The recruitment posters said it was harmless and the pay was good. How was I to know I would fall in love and almost start an interstellar war?
“You know the rent is due in a week, right?” This from my roommate Jeff.
He sounded concerned and rightly so. I hadn’t had steady work in almost six months and I was pretty much out of money. “Yeah, don’t remind me! I’m going to be short this month, unless I give up eating.”
“Why is it so hard for you to find a job?”
“It’s not hard to find a job, it’s hard to keep one. Every temp job I take promises me full-time employment, but then they hire somebody else a week later for less money.”
“I don’t understand. You’ve got a degree in accounting and you’ve been working as a bookkeeper for how long? And still can’t find full-time work?”
“Six years bookkeeping experience after I graduated. But the software changes so fast, I have a hard time keeping up with it.” I didn’t want to continue this depressing conversation. “I’m going out for a bit; maybe I can clear my head.”
“Just remember about the rent.”
How could I forget?
I wandered up toThird Avenuewhere there was at least one bar, pizzeria, and falafel joint on every block. Bay Ridge was that kind of neighborhood. I needed a drink, so I stopped at Short’s. It was an old man’s watering hole, but the beer was cold and cheap. The place smelled of stale beer and Old Spice. In the dim light, I saw Tommy was behind the bar; an old friend of my dad’s.
“Heya Billy! How’s it goin’?”
“Pretty crummy right now. How about with you?”
He didn’t even ask me what I wanted; he just drew me a glass of beer. “Things are fine with me. Business is good and we haven’t had a fight in a couple of weeks. Here, the first ones on me.”
I thanked him and turned to survey the bar, beer in hand. It was the usual crowd of old folks; retirees of both sexes. The men were dressed in work boots and jeans with a variety of colored work shirts. The women were all dolled up with blue hair and fluorescent eye shadow. The juke box was a Wurlitzer reproduction cranking out music from eighty years ago. It was currently playing a Rolling Stones tune; I think it was from their final album, Mick Jagger Is Dead. I just enjoyed my beer and let me mind go blank for a few minutes.
Some guy came into the bar carrying a load of posters. He went to Tommy and they had a short conversation that I couldn’t hear. Tommy grimaced but nodded to the guy, who promptly went to the back wall and hung one of his posters up. Some of the patrons wandered back to look at it. They read it and shook their heads, walking away with smiles on their faces.
“Tommy, what’s that all about?”
“You go ahead and look at it. I don’t hold truck with that garbage.”
Curiosity got the better of me, so I walked to the back and read it. It was a recruitment poster for something I had been dimly aware of. It called for people to be Hosts for alien visitors. What caught my eye were the phrases easy work, high pay and candidates needed immediately. There was a small box of cards attached to the poster, so I took one. I went back to the bar, finished my beer and said good night to Tommy. I went home and called the contact number. I made an appointment for the next morning to submit to an interview. They wouldn’t answer any of my questions, but assured me that everything would be explained in detail during the interview. I went to bed wondering what it was all about.
The main offices of Hosting Incorporated were in mid-townManhattan, in the oldEmpireStatebuilding. I got there about an hour before my appointment and cooled my heels drinking bad coffee and reading old magazines. Right on time, they called me in for my interview.
“So, Mr. Wallace, what do you know about Hosting?”
My interviewer was a brown-haired woman in her mid-forties. She was a little plump but had a nice smile. Her office was kind of plain; just her desk and chair and my chair. The walls, however, were covered in posters of alien races. “Not a lot, really. Just that you need people to host alien visitors to Earth. I have a small apartment, but I’m sure I can handle having an extra roommate for a while.”
She smiled. “I’m afraid you don’t understand what we mean by hosting. What is your educational background?”
“I’m an accountant.”
“How much science did you have in college?”
“Just the basic courses I needed to graduate. Nothing special.”
“I see. Let me try to explain this as simply as I can. You know we’ve had contact with other species for almost sixty years.”
“Yes. I don’t watch the news often, but I do know about that. But I thought they couldn’t come here; they were too far away.”
“That’s right. For the most part it would take decades or centuries for them to get to Earth. But there is another way that we use now to have visitors from other stars. Is there any chance you know anything about quantum physics?”
“Only what I see on the vids. And it always confuses me.”
She sighed. “The simplest way I can explain this is by telling you it means you will host an alien in your body while you spend time in his body.”
“Body? You mean I’m going to have an alien in my brain? There can’t be enough room in there!” I was getting a little panicked. I’m not sure I wanted to host a ghost or spirit or whatever the thing would be.
“No, you misunderstand. Your body would have someone else in it, and you would be in someone else’s body on another planet.”
“Why would anybody do that?”
“It helps us to have direct contact with other species and it allows for you to have a nice vacation somewhere you would never be able to visit otherwise. The five thousand credits a day are a nice bonus, too.”
That stopped me short. I hadn’t made that much in the last six months. “Tell me more about this.”
She went into a detailed explanation of what Hosting was all about. I missed most of it because I was daydreaming about how much money I would make. She finally told me I was a good candidate physically; young and in apparent good health. I needed to go through a series of tests, both physical and psychological, to make sure. I really only had two questions. “When can I start and how often do I get paid?”
Nine hours later I was a fully accredited Host, with the first days’ payment in my account. The first thing I did was transfer next month’s rent and utility payments to my roommates account. Next, since I was starving I decided to treat myself to a really good dinner. On the way home, I stopped at the best steak house I knew; Peter Luger’s. They had been in business for over two hundred years and I had always wanted to eat there. I could finally afford it! I ordered a huge Porter House steak, medium rare, and lots of appetizers.
While I waited for my order, I looked around at the other people eating. Most of them were actually not eating, but watching one man. He was sitting alone at a table piled high with dishes. His face was covered in grease and he was gnawing on a steak bone. It looked like it was his third or fourth, and it was almost raw. He was making grunting noises and smiling like he hadn’t tasted anything like it before. Then I noticed a medallion hanging out of his jacket pocket. It looked just like the one they had given me for Hosting. I got up and went over to him.
“Excuse me sir.” He just grunted and kept gnawing on the bone. “Are you an alien?” He stopped gnawing and looked at me.
“Alien look do like I?”
“Well, your table manners certainly aren’t the most human I’ve ever seen.”
“Rudeness question. I be, act human like. Must be mistake. Go.”
I went back to my table wondering about the guy. The manager came over to me.
“Sir, we would appreciate you not bothering the other customers.” He was a bit surly in his attitude.
On a hunch I flashed my medallion. He instantly changed his attitude and apologized.
“I’m sorry sir. I didn’t realize you were a Host. You realize our dedication to discretion. We get many Hosts in for the cuisine. Some of them have never tasted anything like beef before. The gentleman in question is in high demand as a Host because he always recommends us.”
That was something to keep in mind. I thanked the manager. Just as he left, my dinner arrived. I enjoyed it immensely, even though it cost over five hundred credits. But all through the meal I kept glancing back at the Host and thought about what I had gotten myself into.
“You WHAT?” I guessed my roommate was a little upset.
“I became a Host. No big deal. It pays really well. I’ve already put next month’s rent and utilities in your account.”
“That’s not the point! I’m going to have to live with whoever takes over your body! Who knows what kind of bizarre habits they may have!”
“So I guess you know what this is all about, then.”
“Don’t you ever watch the news? There’s always some story about a Host doing something stupid or dangerous. Last month a Host almost got killed when he walked into traffic. On his home world traffic stops for pedestrians. Nobody bothered to tell him it didn’t work that way here. Do you want to get stuck on another planet who knows how many light years away when your hosting buddy get himself killed?”
“They didn’t mention that. I’m sure they would have if it was a problem.”
I woke up the next morning and got ready for my first day of Hosting. I was told to eat a hearty breakfast and get cleaned up as if I were going out for the day. Precisely at two minutes to ten in the morning I was ready and seated in my living room. I took out the medallion and look carefully at it. There wasn’t much to see. Just the Hosting logo and a button in the middle of it. The thing weighed about half a pound and was bronze in color; it felt warm in my hand. I thought about what I was about to do. It was finally sinking in. This wasn’t just about money; I was going to visit an alien culture dozens, if not hundreds of light years away. I glanced up at the clock and saw it was ten. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and pressed the button.
I was thrown back in my chair and my ears were assaulted by someone screaming. I opened my eyes, all four of them, and saw a sheer cliff face coming at me very fast. There was a wheel in front of me and I grabbed it and pulled back hard on it. Whatever I was flying turned its’ nose up right before we hit. I was shoved further back in my seat and was staring at a cloud-filled sky of pale green. We quickly cleared the cliff face and I was flying in open space. The screaming beside me turned to laughter and then spoke.
“Wow, what a rush! I didn’t think you would do it! I thought we were gonna smash for sure!”
I turned and looked at the person sitting next to me. I could tell it was a female by the row of bumps under her tunic. She was green, almost as pale as the sky. Her four eyes were a deep black in color, spaced equally across her forehead. Her head was shaped like a spade, coming to a vertical point. Her mouth was wide and generous, with razor sharp teeth. Her nose was four slits in the middle of her face and she had a small, rounded chin. I gaped at her and asked “Who are you and where am I?”
She became very confused. “Blarish, what are you talking about? This isn’t any time to kid around. You’d better get us flying straight before we leave atmo.”
“Fly? I have no idea how to fly!” I felt whatever passed for a stomach start to flip over.
“You don’t – oh Great Cloud Father! You told me the switch was tomorrow! You idiot, we’re gonna die!”
“Can’t you take the controls and fly?”
“I don’t have my license yet! Do you know anything about skeeters?”
“I’ve never even heard of them! I was just sitting in my apartment and pushed the button on the hosting medallion and wound up here!”
“We’d better think of something, otherwise we’ll be clearing the atmosphere in about two segments. And this thing isn’t vacuum rated!”