Frank Dobby had been night-shift manager at
the Route 89 Shop-A-Lot for twenty-three years,
and he thought he’d seen everything.
Shraa had been on Earth for
point-oh-twenty-three planetary rotations, and they’d
seen enough to know they wanted off the planet, immediately.
Unfortunately, Shraa’s shuttle needed
repairs and fuel before it could go anywhere. Though its
energy-engine had survived the rough landing, most
on-board systems were fried. Shraa could do without
mag-grav and autopilot in a pinch, but internal sensors
and oxygen generators were non-negotiable.
Luckily, this wasn’t Shraa’s first time
crashing onto a backwater, periphery planet. Clocking in
at several billion industrial bipeds, Earth was likely
enough to have the right supplies. All Shraa had to do
was find them.
Luckily, resourceful acquisition
was one of their specialties.
A four-lane highway cut through the woods
where Shraa had landed. Headlights zoomed over the tops
of trees, and the whirr of wheels and combustion engines
promised nearby civilization. After climbing the shuttle
for a better view, Shraa noticed large neon signs across
the noisy road.
hadn’t bothered buying a visual translator. They cost
twice as much as basic audio, and most galactic standard
languages were haptic-based, anyway. But a shop looked
like a shop anywhere in the galaxy. Bright colors,
flashing signs. Come and let us sell you things.
Good a place as any to start.
Grabbing a laser-blade and a fistful of
currency chips, Shraa engaged the camouflage mode on
their suit. The suit’s database included thousands of
planets, yet it had only a handful of customization
options under Earth; barely anyone ended up this
far off the civilized paths.
Shraa scrolled through the short list:
gender, skin, eyes, clothes. Earth seemed oddly fixated
on category-determined identity. Though, admittedly,
Shraa’s databases were outdated. Hopefully, Earthings’
appearance hadn’t changed much over the last few hundred
After brief deliberation, Shraa picked female
(she/her), a tan skin-tone in the middle of the
available spectrum, and running clothes. Any
crash-landing on an uncivilized, periphery planet was
certain to involve plenty of running.
The suit whirred into camouflage mode.
Shraa stared at their long-fingered, clawed hand as it
blurred, then reappeared looking thinner, paler, and
with fewer digits.
“Hello.” They--oops, no, she/her--tasted
the odd, high-pitched tone vibrating in the suit’s
voicebox. “I am a female she/her woman human, from
They grinned and headed toward the flashing
Frank spotted the petite woman walking
across the highway like it was her grandma’s garden, and
for one awful moment he thought she was trying to die.
He was reaching for the phone to dial 911,
when the woman skipped over the separator, waited for
two cars to whirr by, then darted across the two south
lanes and made it to the other side just before a semi
passed her with an ear-splitting honk. She turned and
waved, then skipped into the strip mall’s parking lot,
while Frank swore out his panic through gritted teeth.
What the hell was wrong with kids these
He shook his head. Probably she’d snorted
too much nutmeg or something. He’d heard from his
neighbor that was a thing.
To his dismay, the woman veered toward the
Shop-A-Lot. Frank hesitantly eyed the phone. A
call to the cops would likely as not lead to more
hassle, and though the woman was plainly a nutcase, any
night-manager worth his salt knew how to tell tripping
The woman pressed her palms against several
store windows, as though trying to materialize through,
and she ‘ooh’ed in delight when she finally reached the
doors and they slid open.
Frank put the phone away. He’d sent
everyone home but Billy, who was mopping floors in the
cafe area, and Billy's sister Sylvie who was taking out
trash in the back. The three of them could handle one
woman, especially as she didn’t seem so much aggressive
as exceedingly parted from her faculties.
She strolled in with a wide, uneven grin,
like a kid at a Christmas-tree lighting in the town
square. Frank was relieved to confirm she didn’t look
armed; nor was she approaching with the skittish hunch
of someone geared for mischief. Probably just some party
goer with a bad case of the munchies. The college dorms
sat just a couple miles away.
She spotted Frank and made a beeline to his
register, and he braced for impact.
“Sorry, Ma'am. I'm afraid we're closed for
“I just need some supplies.” She had an odd
voice, lower than he'd expected, with an accent Frank
couldn't place. Her face was unusual too. Oval, almost
too oval, with eyes a little too big and far apart, and
the neck an inch too long for her height. Like a
beginner artist had painted her and messed up
calculating her proportions a little.
She smacked her lips together, like she
tasted something funny.
“I need... hmm. Nitrogen, iron, electrolyte
solution, a molecular sieve and a conductive battery.
Oh, and food. You have food, right?” The woman grabbed a
power bar from the register display and sniffed it.
Frank didn't get to protest before she ripped the
wrapper. “This'll do. A week's supply of these. Vary the
flavors if you can. But nothing too sweet; I hate
Frank cleared his throat. He hadn't worked
there for decades without being prepared for every sort
of wacky customer that came his way.
“Ma'am, I’m sorry, we're closed. If you can
come back tomorrow morning ...You can keep the energy
bar. Would you like me to call you an Uber?
Ma'am, please put those back.”
She was sniffing at a lip balm, now.
“What's an oo-ber?”
Maybe she was a foreigner. “A taxi. A car,
to take you back to your house. Where you're staying –-
no, ma'am, you can’t eat that!” The woman was about to
bite into the checkout divider. Jesus. Frank
sometimes wished he could give these new drugs a try.
She put down the divider and smiled at him.
“I don't need a ride. I'm here in my shuttle. But I have
to fix it. Point me to your repair section while you get
my food together?”
Frank sighed. At least that explained why
she'd stopped in the middle of the highway.
“We don't have a repair section, Ma'am. If your
car’s broken, you can use the store phone to call AAA.”
Maybe she was Canadian.
“Roadside assistance. You're not from
around here, are you?” They didn't get a lot of tourists
in their neck of the woods, but the occasional
road-tripper stumbled through. “Would you like to call
AAA? Or perhaps call a friend?” He grimaced. The woman
had bitten off half the power bar and was chewing it
with her mouth open.
“This is good!” She swallowed, “I mean,
probably toxic, but good. What is it? Sugar? You know,
there are places that use sugar as shuttle fuel—”
“Are you from Canada?” Frank had heard they
did funny things, there. Odd folk. “You got a bit of an
“Oh, that's probably the audio translator.
Where did you say you keep the batteries?” The woman
ambled past him, down the cleaning supply aisle. “Damn
it. I can't read any of these labels. Would you mind
reading them for me? What did you say your name was?”
“It's Frank, Ma'am. And I can't sell you
anything, we've already closed out the registers. Why
don't you let me call someone for you, if you need a
ride? Ma'am –- no, please, you're not supposed to open
that. Ma'am, please put that back.”
She'd started unscrewing lids off detergent
bottles and smelling them. Frank groaned. It was past
midnight, and he didn't feel like mopping spilled
detergent off the floor.
“Ma'am, please put that back, or I'm afraid
I'm going to have to call security.” A lie, as Billy and
Sylvie hardly counted as security. Technically that was
in Billy's job description, but Frank harbored no
illusions about the kid's ability to handle anything.
The woman's expression tensed at the
mention of security. “Now, Fronk. That’s not necessary.
I just need some basic supplies for my shuttle, and I'll
be out of your way. I know, I know, you're closed,” she
waved a dismissive hand, “But you and I both know the
first rule of business: never say no to a customer!” She
grinned her misproportioned grin. “Please help me find
the supplies to fix my ride, and I'll make it worth your
“Everything alright, Frank?” Sylvie
appeared at the far end of the aisle, holding a mop in
her hand like a spear, dripping head angled warily at
Frank liked Sylvie. She was ten times
sharper than her good-for-nothing brother, and one of
the few people he could truly rely on to run the store.
“All good, love. Just helping out the last
customer of the day. Can you help Billy lock the doors?”
If the woman had friends, Frank didn't want any more of
them wandering the aisles sniffing detergents. “Alright,
ma'am. Why don't you tell me what supplies you need, and
we'll see what we can do?”
He'd learned that rule of business a long
time ago: easier to give in than get into a prolonged
argument with a customer.
“Nitrogen,” said the woman. “Iron.
Conductive battery ...oh, these look about right.” She
picked up a box of sanitary pads off the shelf, “Are
these silica sieves?”
Frank sighed. He'd have a good story for
Alice, when he got home. “Ma'am, those are--”
A flash of light erupted outside the
window. Frank frowned: it looked like a shooting star,
streaking across the sky, only brighter, much brighter,
and larger, and slower. It drew a half-arc over the
woods, before it went out of sight. “What ...? Huh. Hey,
Sylvie, did you see that?”
“Some kind of meteor?” Sylvie called from
the door. “Or some kids lost control of their drone.”
“It’s not a meteorite.” The woman’s uneven
face had grown alarmed. “I was hoping this wouldn’t
“What wouldn’t happen?” Frank scowled.
“What was that?”
“Trouble.” She pulled a slick gadget from
out of nowhere -- Ye gods, these new phones were
getting weirder by the day. -- and tapped its
screen. “Apparently, my jamming device isn't as good as
what I paid for. Ugh, I can't believe they tracked me
all the way to this hole!” She huffed, “You steal one
little data crystal, and suddenly you're the galaxy's
Frank choked. “Track you? Wanted?!”
“Fronk, I really need those supplies, now.”
She glanced over her shoulder. “Believe me, the sooner I
get off this planet, the better for everyone. The Grumm
Alliance doesn't care about jurisdiction or discretion.
Where are your conductive batteries?”
Frank mentally cursed out Billy again for
not locking the doors.
Shraa cursed out Prime Grumm and his band
of thugs for shooting their shuttle off course and
dogging them all the way to this dingy planet. And it
wasn't even the Grumms’ data crystal Shraa had taken! Prime Grum had
stolen it first, from the First Federation's archives.
Shraa was simply …repossessing.
They checked the reading on their sleeve
pad. The camouflage suit should hide them from the
Grumms' scanners, but the store, with its giant neon
lights, wasn’t exactly stealthy. Even Grumm thugs could
track if there was a huge sign flashing ‘Come Here’
right in front of them.
“Ma'am.” The Earth seller Fronk was backing
up slowly, looking like a frightened Apsaran bullfrog.
“Perhaps it was best if you uh, came back during
business hours ...”
Honestly. What kind of businessman kicked
out a customer? Shraa pulled out a handful of metal
chips and crystals from their pocket and tossed them at
I'm sure some of this is Earth currency. Pick it and
help me get what I need to fix my oxygen generators
before those goons find my ship.”
“Ship? Earth currency?” Fronk scowled. “Is
this one of those you-tube things? Are you part of some
sort of show? Because you know I'm supposed to get
advance notice, and I certainly never agreed to anything
after hours... Hey! Please put those back! Stop!”
Shraa had begun to pick things off the
shelves, sniffing for the right materials. In a pinch
they could do without the molecular sieve. But they
needed a new battery for sure, and definitely had to
replenish the nitrogen supply, plus get a tankful of
“Are these diamonds?” Fronk was
picking through the handful of currency chips. “Listen,
er, ma'am. Ma'am. I wasn't notified of any sort
of game going on, and I'm not authorized to approve this
-- you can't drink the sunflower oil, ma'am!!”
Oil! Shraa’s shuttle wasn't old enough to
still need oil, but they could improvise some sort of
combustion-based ignition if the Grumms were using a
dampening field. Couldn't hurt to have it just in case.
“Okay, now iron.” They looked at Fronk.
“You know what iron is, right? I need that.”
He sighed. “There's some over-the-counter
tablets in Aisle three.”
“That thing in the sky’s gone.” Another
human appeared behind Fronk, while Shraa headed for what
they hoped was Aisle 3. “Could’ve been some sort of
“It’s a Grumm tracker ship,” Shraa called
back. “Don't worry about it. As long as I fix my shuttle
soon, they won't bother you.”
The second human made a strangled noise in
Fronk's direction. It had a higher-pitched voice and
smelled like of organic compounds. A female (she/her),
likely. “What's a Grumm?”
“I don't know!” Fronk sounded exasperated.
Poor Earthling. Shraa might've felt bad, but if he'd
just given up the supplies from the start, they wouldn't
be here. “Look, do you know about any sort of game or
show or something going on? Anything at your college?”
“Not that I know of. Maybe it's one of
those internet challenges. Are those real diamonds?”
“Of course they're not real diamonds.”
“Of course they're real!” Shraa called out
from the next aisle. “I don't stoop to counterfeit
currency!” The nerve.
They stuffed several containers into their
suit pockets and picked up two large containers of
water, which was all they could carry without the
additional limb appendices they’d left back on the
“Alright, I got everything except the
battery and the nitrogen. Your batteries are no good; I
need something bigger. I saw combustion vehicles
outside. You must have proper batteries for those?”
“Combustion vehicles?” The female Earthling
blinked. “Do you mean cars?”
“Yes, exactly, cars -- oh, no.”
Shraa spotted three familiar silhouettes outside the
shop windows. “Damn, they’re quick.”
Fronk and the female turned to look. Shraa
could tell the exact moment when they registered that
the tripedal cyclopes outside weren't human. Their jaws
dropped. Their eyes widened. Typical periphery-biped
response to shock. Their hearts picked up, and so did
their sweat glands.
“Don’t worry,” said Shraa. “They can't scan
through my cam suit. So if you just pretend I work here
and that you know me, we can send them off on the wrong
...oh, come on!”
The Grumms had held up a palm-scanner, and
pointed it straight at Shraa.
Three angry eyes glared in her direction.
Then they pulled their blasters and blew out the shop
“Plan B! Plan B!” Shraa took off toward the
door at the far end of the shop. “This is what I get for
buying second-hand camouflage suits.” They ducked as a
Grumm blaster blew out a row of shelves, and they ran
out the door into a smelly back alley.
Frank found himself following the woman
without having decided to do so. Instinct, he guessed.
When someone attacks from the front, you run out the
The woman dashed past the dumpsters and ran
toward the little lane that connected Shop-A-Lot’s
parking lot with the drive-through of a Fast 'n'
Greasy. Frank lumbered several steps behind, torn
between the instinct to run and last year’s knee
replacement that told him to stay.
“Billy!” Sylvie erupted out the back door,
dragging her lanky brother behind. Frank grabbed her arm
when she made to follow the woman.
“Go the other way! Don’t follow her!
They're after her!” Sylvie gave him the glazed-eyed look
of someone who wasn't processing things right. “Left!”
Frank ordered. “Run left! Get to Joe's Pizza!”
The only other place that would be open in
their little plaza. If they'd heard the explosions, they
were probably calling the cops right now.
“Go tell them what happened! Run!”
“What are those things?”
“I don't know!”
“Oh my god!” Sylvie went gray as she stared
at the back door. The three intruders had come out: each
seven feet tall, bulky gray bodies running on three
legs. Three! Three arms stuck out of each body,
and each face had only one giant eye in the middle of
its meaty forehead.
Three round heads swiveled in Frank and
Sylvie’s direction, and various arms brought up what
looked like automated rifle weapons.
“Go!” Frank pushed Sylvie out toward Joe's
Pizza as one of the tripods broke off toward
them. “Hurry! I'll hold him off!”
And he began to hobble backwards out toward
the parking lot, in the opposite direction.
Sylvia wasn't fast, by any stretch, but she
shot off across the parking lot at a speed that might’ve
won the Kentucky derby. Relieved, Frank turned to
confront the bear-size tripod barreling toward him.
He should’ve retired, he thought vaguely,
and gone on that senior Caribbean cruise Alice kept
The hulking monstrosity was nearly on him.
As it raised its weapon, Frank thought of Alice, and the
nice years they’d enjoyed together—
With a deafening metallic screech, a
blinding light enveloped him and the monster alike. As a
bulky shape burst from the darkness in a cacophony of
metal and gravel, Frank cringed away, bringing an arm up
to shield his face from the light.
The tripod made a shrill noise and stumbled
back, weapon clattering against the ground.
A large SUV lumbered over the rest of the
curb from the neighboring parking lot, slamming to a
stop only inches from Frank’s knees. The driver’s door
“Get in, Fronk!” shouted the strange woman.
She punched the wheel, honking and making the windshield
wipers go off. “Oops. Don’t these vehicles have a
weapons system? Hurry up and get in; the light won’t
stall the Grumm for long!”
Frank clambered into the backseat, just as
the tripod regained its footing. It stumbled away from
the blinding headlights and reached for its dropped
weapon. The woman stomped on the gas pedal and rammed
the car into it. The grey body flipped over the hood
with a howl.
Frank gasped. “Wha—”
“Grumms don't like bright light.” The woman
slammed the gas again, and the car lurched. “Giant
pupils. They usually wear protective eye gear, but I'm
guessing they thought they wouldn't need it at night.
Oops. Hold on!”
The car went over another curb, then flew
through the breakdown lane and landed right in the
middle of the highway.
Frank made an inarticulate noise of terror.
“Turn! Turn! No, not -- You're going the wrong way!”
He shrieked as a pair of headlights came at
them at terrifying speed. The woman yanked the wheel,
swerving to safety at the last second. Frank shrieked
again. Another pair of headlights, then another. His
throat was hurting. He wanted to say "Stop!",
but couldn't get the words out.
The woman glanced back from the driver’s
seat. “Relax, Fronk. This isn't nearly as hard as
navigating an asteroid belt in a shuttle with fried
auto-pilot. And I can’t let any native fauna die because
of me, or there’ll be endless paperwork to file with the
Guild, and they’ll up my insurance rates.”
The car lurched again, and somehow they
were over the divider and across several more lanes. It
took Frank a minute to start breathing enough to realize
they'd pulled over into the woods across the highway. He
managed to lean out a window before retching.
“Earthlings have no stomach for adventure,
hm?” The woman huffed. “The Grumms won’t be far behind;
they're pretty quick on their feet. I need you to take
the battery out of this vehicle while I work on other
repairs. Alright, Fronk? Great. Come on, my shuttle's
just behind those trees.”
Half his body still hanging out the window,
Frank stared at the remains of his dinner trailing
slowly down the door of the SUV.
“I've never fixed anything this fast in my
life.” Shraa had burned all twelve fingers and wouldn't
smell anything except overloaded crystal for a week, but
the generators were back in working shape. All they
needed was the battery. “You done with that, Fronk?
The Earthling had gotten his voice back, it
seemed. But he still looked like someone who'd smoked a
little too much dreamgrass. He lurched through the
shuttle hatch to deposit a giant cube in her arms.
“This is the battery? It’s huge!”
Shraa shook their head, “You periphery bipeds, always so
obsessed with size. Never mind, I’ll find a way to make
They climbed back inside the cockpit and
yanked out a clump handful of wires from under the main
console. So much for climate control and automatic door
locks. But they had to fit that damned battery in there
to loop it into the shuttle’s systems.
“Is this some sort of prank?” Fronk had
followed her inside. Frank. Not Fronk. The
translator was being funny. Next time Shraa would steal
a better one.
“Hand me that compensator, will you? The
little round thing on the floor. There you go. Thanks.”
Shraa adjusted the battery's output to what the oxygen
generators needed; hopefully the fix would hold long
enough to get off the ground. The Grumm couldn’t track
the shuttle in space—their own vessel was too slow for
“Are you an alien?”
Fronk –- Frank, damn it -– was leaning
against the wall. Squishing half of Shraa’s luminescent
algae cells. The shuttle would be dim for days, until
“Hold this.” They handed him the
compensator and crouched to check the battery again. “So
Earth doesn’t know about the rest of the galaxy yet, hm?
Don’t worry …you’ll all probably get a clue in another
hundred solar revolutions or two. I heard some of the
real-estate moguls were thinking of expanding into this
sector. Hand me back that thing, thanks.”
They flicked the generators on, smiling at
the familiar bubbling sounds. Great. They wouldn't
suffocate while the Grumms tried to shoot the shuttle
out of the sky.
The sky above the woods began to flash with
various colors. Shraa squinted. “What are those lights?”
“Cops,” said Frank. “Police. Eh ...law
enforcement.” He shifted on the balls of his feet.
“Sylvie must've called them. They'll be looking for...”
He sounded like someone not fully awake.
“Don’t worry about it. I’m used to evading
law enforcement. Just -- uh oh.” Their ears picked up
the footsteps before the sensors did. “Looks like our
evening together's not over yet, Frank. Let me just
activate -- oh, knots, I pulled out the cannon controls.
They shoved Frank to the floor just in
time: two Grumms had rolled out of the tree line. Their
blasters charred the hull as Shraa pulled closed the
Damned three-legged sore losers.
Shraa threw themselves into the pilot's
seat—“Hold on!”—and hit the ignition.
The shuttle sputtered a few times, but in
the end the oversized Earthling battery did the trick.
The engines lit up and propelled them upwards. Frank
began to make screeching noises again, as the floor
vibrated nicely under the engine pressure, and bangs
from Grumm blasters punctuated their take-off.
“Sto-o-o-o-o-p!” Frank staggered over to
the woman, while something like weapons fire rocked the
ship. “You can't!” He began to shake her shoulders,
trying to get a hold of the controls. “I—Alice! I have a
family! You can’t take me–I can’t—”
“Oh, do quit it.” She huffed, “You know how
many life forms in this galaxy would be falling over
their feet for a chance to be my copilot? Stop
screeching, Frank. I'm not taking you anywhere. I can't
afford a copilot's insurance pay, anyway. I’m just
giving you a ride home.”
Frank watched open-mouthed as she moved her
hands over a flashing panel, then put them on the
crystal globe in front of her seat.
“There,” she said a moment later. “We're
right above your shop. Sorry about the damage, by the
way, but that currency I gave you should cover it. Go on
now, hop off. Unless you changed your mind about
becoming my copilot?” She winked. “You can use the
emergency hatch to get off. Hurry up.”
Frank stumbled over to the door that had
just slid open in the floor. Through it he could see
grass and gravel. They were barely thirty feet above
“Is this some sort of prank?” He glanced at
the main console and the Jeep battery, then back at the
woman. “Are you real? What are you? I knew you looked
“Of course I’m real. It’s this damned
second-hand camouflage suit that looks funny. And you
wouldn’t believe the itching. There.”
She pulled down the zipper of her jacket,
and within the span of an eyeblink, she looked
different. Her head was longer, her eyes farther apart
and large like fly eyes. She had more… limbs. Frank
shook his head. Was he seeing double?
Her uneven grin looked the same, though.
Only her teeth were sharper.
“I'm Shraa.” Her voice sounded ...richer.
Like there were more voices in one. “Nice to meet you.
Now get off my shuttle before I charge you a transport
Frank kneeled awkwardly by the hatch. A
ladder had appeared below. He gripped it tight, then
glanced back up at Shraa. “What do you want on Earth?”
His throat was dry. “Is this the end? Are you here to
“I’m more into retrieval and
reappropriation,” said Shraa, “not so much killing.”
“And those things? The ones who shot up the
A gang of intergalactic thugs. But don't worry, they
don't care about Earth, either. They just wanted this.”
She reached into her pocket and pulled out what looked
like a rectangular shard of glass. “I reappropriated
it from them recently.”
“What is it?”
Shraa flashed him a grin. “The First
Federation's oldest archive. A long-lost database from
the time civilization first evolved in the galaxy.” One
oblong eye winked. “And my retirement fund, more
importantly. So you know, all your trouble tonight was
in the service of a good cause.”
Her laughing insect-like eyes were the last
thing Frank saw before the ladder started moving,
lowering him gently to the parking lot gravel. Once his
shoes were firmly planted on the ground, the ladder
rolled back up, and the shuttle vanished.
Frank blinked. The night was silent again.
The “O” in Joe's Pizza across the lot flashed a
few times then burned out. The back door to Shop-A-Lot
was open, and police lights reflected off the
Above, the night sky showed only a few
stars and some smoke stacks in the distance.
Frank fumbled in his vest pocket, getting
out his dinged old iPhone. His hands were shaking as he
tapped the cracked screen.
“Alice? It’s Frank. No, no, everything’s
fine. I’ll just close up and head home.”
He took a deep breath, smiling at the sound
of her quiet, soothing voice. She’d never believe him
when he told her what happened that night. Well—she
would, but part of her, Frank suspected, would be
keeping an eye out for signs of senility.
“I was thinking,” he told her. “How would
you like to take that cruise to the Caribbean next
month? Yeah. I think I’m ready to retire.”
A light streaked above, like a falling star
going in reverse. Shraa, thought Frank. Shraa and that
Jeep battery. Good old homemade gear saved the day.
His shoe stuck to something gooey on the
pavement. Frank looked back down. A piece of pasty-gray
flesh, right next to dark skid marks.
“Yeah, I’m still here. No …” He stuck a
hand in his pocket, pulling out a handful of small,
glittering diamonds. “You know, I don’t think money’ll
be a problem.”
He slowly drew the tip of his shoe across
the gravel. The last of the Grumm mixed with dirt and
pebbles into an indistinct smear that would be gone by
morning, and Frank brushed off the hem of his shirt and
ambled back to the door of the Shop-A-Lot.