The Fire-Box House

It would have been odd enough for a stranger to walk into Jade Massilon's backyard from the forest at all. But this stranger looked like he should have been walking into a sci-fi convention. His entire head was covered in a hairless, ridged and scaly mask. He wore a futuristic-looking gray jumpsuit with an intricate design of shiny gold circles embossed on the front. And heavy gray boots came up to his knees.

Obviously, he was just another sign of Jade's over-active imagination. She looked again to clear the bizarre image from her mind.

But there he was, standing on the orange leaves behind the house, looking at her.  

"My vehicle is disabled," he said. "I require help." He had a deep voice.

"Where is your vehicle?" Jade asked, stalling for time.

"About five hundred meters north-northeast of here." 

Five hundred meters north-northeast. There were no roads in that location--only a rough jeep track. So either the man was confused, or he was lying. 

"I'd be happy to call someone for you," she told him, and went into the house. She would lock the door and call 911, and they'd probably take him to the hospital.

But before she could finish closing the door, he grabbed it and followed her inside. He was tall--at least six-six.

With an effort, she looked up at the scaly mask. It looked like a professional job, glued on and touched up with makeup. "Wait for me outside, please."

"No," he said, and closed the door.

“Really,” she insisted, her pulse throbbing in her ears, “you need to wait outside.” She tried to open the door again, but he held it closed.

She kicked the little throw rug out of the way, got a solid stance on the pine floorboards, grabbed the doorknob with both hands, leaned back and pulled hard. But of course she was no match for the much bigger intruder, and he stood there looking almost bored, holding the door shut easily with one hand.

Telling herself not to panic, she methodically put the mail down on the table, took off her coat and fed the fire in the woodstove. She replaced the stove lid, hung the lid lifter on its nail beside the bellows and whisk broom on the side of the stair stringer and started for the telephone.

But when she had the phone almost within her reach, he grabbed her arm, stopping her. His touch felt like leather--and no wonder. He wore gloves to match the gray-brown 'alien' skin of his mask.

The fingers of the gloves ended in claws, but either they weren't sharp or he had been careful not to scratch her with them. "I will not allow you to contact your government," he said matter-of-factly. 

"Let me go!" Jade protested, trying not to sound scared.

To her surprise, he did release her, and she made a dive for the phone.

It was useless. He grabbed her arm again and held her back.

"Okay," she breathed, hoping she hadn't angered him. "No phone calls." She paused, swallowed, took a deep breath, and said, "But then, I don't know how I can help you."

"I require heat," he replied evenly. "You will stay by the stairs." Still holding her arm, he pulled her back around the table to the place where she’d just hung the lid lifter. 

He stood between the stove and the table, blocking her way to the phone, and took off his outer piece of clothing. It was a stiff piece, worn in front like a baseball catcher's chest protector. He pulled his arms out of his jumpsuit and tied the sleeves around his waist. The long-sleeved jersey or union suit he wore underneath covered him completely, from 'alien' mask to 'alien' gloves.

"What should I call you?" Jade asked. She needed to find a way to get rid of him, and talking seemed to be the only option she had left.

"Zuke," he answered, "My name is Zuke." It rhymed with 'duke.' 

"Zuke," she repeated. "I'm Jade. So what's with the alien suit? You going to a con?"

"No," he answered. "I wear the uniform of a Chuzekk Zeed."

"I should check the fire again," said Jade. It was too early to check the fire, but she was nervous and needed to keep moving.

He made room for her, and she looked at the fire and tasted the soup that simmered on top. After adding a little black pepper and allspice, there was nothing more to do than move it to the edge of the stove to keep warm.

"Is it ready?" he asked.

"Yeah," said Jade. "It's done." She didn't want to offer him any. He wasn't a guest, after all.

He lifted the cover without a potholder and smelled the soup. "I will eat with you," he said.

His arrogance annoyed her, but she bit her tongue. "Soup mugs are on the beam," she said, looking up to where a row of oversized mugs with large handles hung just beyond his spiny head.

He grabbed two, and she got out spoons and a ladle and dill weed. He ladled soup into the mugs and began to eat his. She stirred dill into hers and waited. She was too nervous to eat. And besides, it was still almost boiling. 

"So where you from?" she asked.

"Chuze," he answered.

"Choose what?"

"Chuze is the name of my planet. You have not discovered it yet."

"So what are you doing in my house?"

"My species is cold-blooded," he replied. "We cannot create our own heat through metabolism as you do, so we wear special garments for this purpose. After my vehicle was disabled, I didn't have time to complete repairs before my thermal garment ran out of energy."

"So you came to my house to recharge your garment?" Jade asked. Whatever else this guy was, he was intelligent. 

"Yes," he said. "You should eat. You require fuel to create heat. You will come with me to my vehicle."

"That's okay, you go ahead. I'll stay here."

"No. I will not allow you to contact your government." He pushed her steaming mug closer to her.

She took a bite. "Why not? Why won't you let me contact the government? They can help you."

"They would consider me a threat, capture me, probably kill me. They would attempt to reverse-engineer my personal device, my thermal garment and my vehicle. When we contact your government, we will do so with a show of force sufficient to prove such actions unwise."

"I see." His logic may have been unrelated to reality, but it certainly seemed consistent.

He was getting back into his sleeves, so she put her coat on. The bright orange safety vest, a necessity during hunting season, was already on it. 

He put his chest protector back on, picked up the soup pot by its bail handle and took her arm again.

She closed the stove drafts, and he pulled her out of the house.

"What is that thing for?" she asked on the steps, still looking for a way to convince him to let her go.

He pulled her across the orange leaves where he'd been standing when she first saw him.

"It is armor. It was originally for battle, but now we wear them most of the time."

They headed north, into the forest. 

"And the design on the front? The gold circles?"

"They indicate my rank and command: Zeed, Alien Command."

He let go of her arm, and she tried to put a little distance between them, but it was no use. He only pulled her back before she got out of reach.

Minutes ticked by as he took Jade deeper into the woods and she tried to think of something, anything, to say that might give her a chance at freedom. At least it was only her and not her daughter, too--thank the universe for school.  

“Do you know what’s wrong with your vehicle?” she asked him.

“A defective seal caused a coolant leak. The loss of coolant was not significant, but the heat damage was sufficient to disable the propulsion system.”

Jade didn’t pay a lot of attention to the explanation. “Don’t you need to bring some tools?” she asked. “We have lots of tools at my house. I keep a basic set in my car, and then there are more in the shed. Shouldn’t we grab some?” She stopped and turned, ready to go back. “What tools do you need, exactly?” She tried to sound casual.

He grabbed her arm and forced her forward—northeast, uphill, away from the road. The only hope of getting help out there would be if they happened to meet a hunter.

“But don't you need tools?” she persisted, looking up at him and opening her eyes as wide as she could. Maybe he’d feel sorry for her.

“No,” he replied. “I only need a tachzute combiner, and there is one in my vehicle.”

A new thought suddenly occurred to Jade: if 'Zuke' was delusional--really believed his own story--then would he become violent when he discovered there was no spaceship? She walked for a minute, thinking, silent except for the rustling sound her feet made in the leaves. 

"Does your vehicle have a self-destruct function?" she asked at last.

His lips twitched. "I'm not going to answer that."

"Okay, that's fair. But if it does--and it's in need of repair--then the self-destruct could theoretically go off by accident, right?"

"Go on." He was humoring her.

"And if that happened, we could get to the spot where you left your spaceship--I mean your vehicle--and find nothing there."

But when they got to the spot, it was Jade who was surprised. Parked in a little glade by a stand of maples was something that looked a lot like a rocket--or like one of the space shuttles, but much smaller. It was white and cone shaped and had some round black things on the bottom that she took to be exhaust ports.

"How did this get here?" she asked when she could find her voice again.

"I was recording this region when propulsion failed, forcing me to land. I will finish repairs. You will stay beside me."

"You were recording this region. You mean mapping it?"

"Yes." He took a device from his hip and entered a code, and an opening appeared in the side of the vehicle. Jade noticed that he typed with his claws and not his fingers. "Mapping and recording sounds, images, temperature, pressure, material composition and other things."


He shrugged. "Acquiring knowledge is always important."

He pulled her inside and began typing with his claws and consulting various readouts. None of the places where he typed looked like keypads, and none of the places where the readouts showed looked like screens. They all just seemed to be normal parts of the interior--walls or posts, for example--until diagrams and writing appeared on them. The writing had an angular shape like printed Hebrew, with a little of the brush-stroke quality of Chinese calligraphy.

"Your helium reserves are not well secured," he said. "You don't want to run out of helium, and yours is leaking out into space. When you contact your government, you should tell them that."

"Okay," she answered. "What does that say?"

"Twenty-six-pod propulsion failure.” He opened a couple of compartments and selected a square of sheet metal and a white thing that looked like a short plastic club. 

He went outside again, taking her with him, removed a small service panel and began to use the sheet metal to patch a hole. The club was apparently a welding torch, except it didn't make any sparks.

When he was done, he stood up and spoke a command, and the craft's engine started with a babbling hum. Then the hum stopped and the vehicle disappeared.

He spoke another command, and the vehicle reappeared, silent this time. 

He turned to her and offered his hand, and she shook it. "I'm ready to leave now; you're free to go home," he said. "Don't forget about the helium." 

Then he stepped inside, and the door closed behind him. The vehicle made its babbling hum for a few seconds, then went silent.

An instant later, it was gone, leaving Jade standing on the orange leaves, alone.