Jenny Lee & the Stranger ~ Part 3

Laika Pupkino ~ 2011


Peace Assessor Epsilon Tau stood with his back against a big rock, trembling. He needed to calm down. Taking a slow deep breath, he asked for the blessing of the Atom Heart Mother and reached out with his senses, connecting. He could feel the solidness of the house-size boulder behind him. The shape of it where it extended below the ground. The soil around it, a tumult of microscopic life and death and new birth .......... Beneath that he could feel the planet's brittle crust---mere kilometers thick---and then the horribly liquid mantle and core beneath...

This exercise would have quickly soothed his soul back at home, but here it just made him aware of how horribly alien this planet was. Green trees. A yellow sun in a blue sky…

The Sun ............ Even a star this small had its majesty, and the familiar roar of churning particles at its heart should have been comforting. But as he reached out across space and locked onto the blazing orb Epsilon forgot to brace himself for this tiny world's rapid rotation. Suddenly the massive boulder behind him seemed to fall away crazily, spinning off to the east. If he hadn’t been leaning against something the rush of vertigo would have made him fall over.

Epsilon Tau set off again, taking great strides in the low gravity, glad that it was only a couple of miles to his base camp, the safety and comfort of that rock enclosure full of familiar objects. He knew he couldn't conduct his mission hiding in a cave, but he needed to recoup after that horrible incident in the fooditorium. None of his Harmony Corps training or previous missions with Prime Assessor Zeta Zeta had prepared him for the raw negative emotion of that encounter.

If only Zeezee were still alive, he sighed. The tenderhearted old dykazoid---a veteran of over thirty assignments like this one---had always seemed to have some tip or other about centering. But she had been caught in a Pulsar burst during their flight here, and against all his protests that he wasn't ready for it, she'd given him a field promotion to Prime Assessor with her dying breath. And so ready or not, this mission was his alone now.

You know that you have the sensitivity for this job, and have the analytic framework. What you fear is that you lack the psychic strength, she'd said. It's there, Love. If you you can't see it's because you're looking for some silly stereotype, like you'd see in some popvid about the ancient Thundermonkeys, instead of that deep rooted certitude that comes up from within, resonating at your own girly frequency. And not borne out of the Fire Vortex---powerful as that is---but from the Mother herself...

She had sounded so sure of this, and had turned out to be right about so many things in the past that even though he'd had real doubts he'd jumped into this field assignment, honoring the final assessment of her career.

The previous day had in fact gone well---setting up his base camp, calibrating his data harvester to the rather primitive and localized media stream, making that crucial first contact with a member of the local populace---and he was finding it easy enough to follow his training, adapting it to the conditions here...

Right up until he'd hit his first serious obstacle.



I feel like an Indian tracker thought Jenny Lee as she followed the trail that her quarry had left. The strange iridescent spoor led her up Myrtle Street to the edge of Dinnehan's Orchard, where the dirt road ended, but the blue drips continued on into the regimented rows of trees. She was kind of worried that if it went on too long this hunt might make her late for school today. She hoped not. But she really needed to find this person, and apologize to him or her for that horribleness back at the diner.

While it was a crazy outfit the stranger had been wearing, she wasn't afraid that he would turn out to be crazy when she found him. Or at least not dangerous-crazy, like those "axe murderers" they showed on the covers of her grandpa's Police Gazette magazines (Or like HITLER- that crazy jabbering voice she recalled hearing on the radio when she was just a little kid, that seemed to make even the adults in the room nervous, and which she'd imagined as belonging to some hideous creature that might come climbing out from under her bed some night to gobble her up!). She suspected that this stranger was in some ways like she herself had been, with this weird gap between what sex you knew you were and the one everyone was saying you had to be. She was kind of hoping that he would be, and that they might be able talk about it some, because it was weird to think you were only person anywhere who felt a certain way…

But right in the middle of the orchard she lost the trail. The blue drips that had been showing up every few feet just seemed to stop. It was starting to look like she'd come all this way for nothing.

A tawny mule in a straw hat was chowing down on a patch of clover, his tail swishing irritably at flies that buzzed around him. While she realized that Edna's dog or Tony's racoon couldn't understand human speech (beyond a few simple phrases “go for a walk” or “Ursula want a sardine?"), Gus Dinnehan's mule seemed like a different matter.

He was clearly a smart mule, having been trained and owned until recently by the US Cavalry. And from his probing, intelligent gaze and the way his responses to the things you said seemed to run the spectrum from sympathetic to sarcastic, she’d always secretly suspected that he could actually knew what she were saying.

She asked him, "Did you see a person come by here? Tall, kinda peculiar looking?"

He raised his head and jerked it thirty degrees to the left, sputtering.

"You sure, Boy?"

He did it again, the same exact sound and gesture.

And sure enough, a short distance in the direction he’d indicated she found where the trail of spots continued, which had been hard to see due to the angle of the sun. As she set off following them she called back, "Thanks a heap, Francis!"

The equine bobbed his head and whinnied, "Wh-r-r-reeeee-heeee-HONK!"



The tail on the Kit-Kat Clock up behind the Regal lunch counter wagged left and right, left and right. It's whisker bracketted face smiled with insane good cheer as its gigantic round eyes slid back and forth to the beat of its wagging tail.

This is what it does, thought Kyle Stuckey. Over and over. All day long. Why would anyone build a clock that did that? That looked like that? It wasn't as if it was advertising anything...

Left, right. Left, right, went the eyes and the tail. Never varying. Never stopping...

And it frightened him in some undefinable way when he realized that it did this even at night, when there was no one here, its empty gaze sweeping tirelessly back and forth across the deserted diner, with its face frozen in that terrible smile.

At least he hoped this was all it did at night. But who was to say if there was no one here to witness it? Maybe it got down off the wall and danced around with all the ketchup bottles and plates and such, like that dreadful “Let's All Go To The Snack Bar” cartoon they showed at intermission down at the Bijou- lately the source of his most horrifying nightmares.

Not only did this insanely grinning totem seem to hold no meaning, but it seemed like it could rob the meaning from anything around it. From anyone who gazed into its unholy face too long. And yet he couldn't look away.

And then suddenly, as its eyes slid back across him once again he could tell. That it knew that he suspected its secret, and he was now in danger of some unimaginable retribution; that dark sorcery which he knew certain inanimate objects possessed. Like maybe turning him into a-

His communion with the mechanical device was shattered as his brother Lyle leaned across the table and slapped him upside the head with his hat. "Wouldja quit gawpin' at that damn thing? I'm talkin' to you!"


"Now hurry up and finish your pie. We need to go take care of this."

Kyle hadn't really been following Lyle's tirade about the stranger, but he knew what "take care of this" meant. And while he may have missed most of his brother's lecture about why they needed to do this, that didn't matter. He was always up for getting some joker on the ground and kicking the tar out of him. It was a special feeling you got, doing that.

With one eye keeping a furtive watch on the Felix-the-Cat clock (back and forth, back and forth, back-) he hurried to finish off his somewhat smaller half of the Martin girl's piece of pie.



Dinnehan's Orchard ended at a growth of beech trees along the bank of Lucy Long Creek. The steep wall of damp dirt Jenny Lee had to shuffle down to get to the creek spoke of deep water and swift currents at certain times of the year, but this late in the spring you could cross it easily.

She peeled off her shoes and socks, and with her saddle shoes in one hand and holding the hem of her skirt aloft with the other, she made her way through the knee-deep water, the muck of the creek bed squishing up pleasantly between her toes.

There were no droplets anywhere in sight on the opposite bank, so she waded downstream, carefully scanning both shorelines. And sure enough, after a hundred yards she found the trail of spots again, along with a set of boot dents angling up the far side. She scrambled up the muddy embankment. The droplets led her to the old trail that she knew would lead up the side of Squaw Peak.



Epsilon Tau been told nothing about the society here, and had been expressly forbidden to monitor the humans’ radio and television communications- anything that might prejudice him one way or the other---until he'd actually begun to walk among them for the two to five days of his evaluation.

And while his nearest supervisor was many light years away and it would have been easy to “peek” during the tedium of his flight here, he hadn’t. He was doing everything strictly by the book, knowing how grave his responsibilities were. Knowing that missions like this one were among the most important duties of the Harmony Corps…

Too important to put in the hands of a dipthoid like me, he thought miserably. Running away like that at the first sign of conflict. A lifetime of immersing myself in NEZTOR'S LAWS OF SELF AND OTHER had gone right out the window!

His attempt to join in this village's firstmeal had turned very ugly almost immediately. Far uglier and far more quickly than he'd imagined possible. Was this planet's psychosphere really that much more unhealthy than the other worlds they'd visited? Or had Zeta Zeta been shielding him with her own powers more than she should have during those missions? If that was true he'd never actually been pulling his own weight, and was basically useless at this job. But given the nature of this job he would prefer to find out that this was the case than to face the grim implications of the former being true.

It hadn't helped that the room that confrontation had taken place in had been designed in utter ignorance of psychospiritual dynamics, a science that these people apparently didn’t have a term for (there actually was one, but his translator unit had been teaching itself English, not Mandarin...), and which had amplified the malign vibrations in the air to an intolerable pitch. But this was no excuse. It wasn't like he’d been in any physical jeopardy...

Or wait. As he focused his attention on that eating hall he could sense something along these lines emanating from there. Someone intending to do him harm. Blind rage and a thirst for violence. And lying right beneath these horrible emotions, an intense pain that was their source. Shame and fear so great that these two humans could not look at it directly, but somehow projected it onto others. The discord of souls warped by brutality and mis-channeled blan energy; chains of malice stretching back in time through the lineage of fathers and grandfathers, to where it mercifully faded, beyond the range of his perceptions...

One of these individuals had a weapon on him, a silly contraption that fired little streamlined chunks of Element 82. But to claim that this would be any reason to turn tail and flee would be self-deception. As he could have done at any time, Epsilon Tau constructed a pair of energy knots with his mind and sent them in the direction of the danger. The force-field equivalent of Chinese finger traps, they should work perfectly against the stubborn wills and brutish methods of his self-proclaimed enemies.



Most of those in the Regal Diner were content to cluck about what an oddball they’d just seen. In a town where anything out of the ordinary so rarely happened, this would be a thing they could jaw about for days...

But to Lyle Stuckey, talking and joking about it was definitely not enough. You couldn't just let something like this slide, you had to take a stand! The stranger made a mockery of everything he and his brother had learned in their youth, when all that was soft and gentle had been beaten out of them by their psycho belt-wielding Pappy.

If it was okay for that freak to be like he was, then all of their pain, and the sacrifice of huge chunks of their essential natures had been for nothing. What kind of world would it be if miscreations like that were allowed to flounce around flaunting their miscreatedness? Pretty soon you’d have people wanting to drive cars with square wheels, or deciding to walk around on their hands instead of their feet, or to marry a rutabega- and every damn one of them would be looking down their nose at him like he was the one who was out of step with everything that was right and normal! It sure wasn’t any kind of world he would want to be part of.

Lyle wasn't sure how far they would go when they caught the freak (inspiration played a large part in the manly art of ass-kicking), but by the time they were through that weirdo would definitely think twice before sauntering down Main Street and into some diner expecting to be served while dressed like that. And if Miss Smarty Pants Jenny Lee Martin happened to be there when they found him...

Well no. Even he wouldn't go beating on some little kid, that was the parent's job after all. Although throwing a scare into the brat might teach her something about minding her elders.

He gulped down the dregs of his coffee and said to Kyle, “Let’s go.”

But when Kyle tried to slide out of the booth he found himself unable to budge. He whispered in panic, “I cain't move! I'm stuck!”

"Why you fat son of a bitch! You need help gettin' up now? Here lemme-"

But Lyle discovered that his own spine and posterior were every bit as rooted to the yellow vinyl bench as his brother's were. As much as he grunted and twisted he couldn't get up. What the Hell?!

Giving it everything he had, he strained to stand up until it felt like something was about to burst inside of him. And when he finally relaxed it released all the energy he'd been expending without results, causing his knees to fly up and bang violently against the bottom of the table. The pistol tucked into the side of his boot---not some sissy derringer but a 38 that he'd cut parts off of which it might seem questionable to remove---went windmilling across the restaurant's floor.

Everyone turned to look at them. He masked his embarrassment with a defiant scowl.

Edna picked up the gun and put it on the table between them. She tilted the steaming chrome pot in her other hand back and forth enticingly, “More coffee, boys?"

Lyle wondered about the wisdom of drinking more coffee right now but he nodded, wanting to give the impression that they were sticking around by choice.

As she topped their cups off Edna pointed at the gun, “A better place to keep that would be in your pants pocket.”

“Are you crazy?! I might shoot my nuts off tryin' to draw from there.”

“Exactly,” she grinned and walked off toward the kitchen.

"Oh my Lord,” gasped Kyle when she was out of range, “What do we do?!”

“Well what we ain't gonna do, you id-jit, is to start hollarin' that we're stuck here. Folks would never let us live it down. 'Ya hear 'bout the Stuckey Brothers? They got stuck!' Hardy har har!"

“But what are we gonna dooooo?” moaned Kyle.

“You axed me that already. I'm thinkin'...”



The blue spots on the ground were getting smaller and with more and more space between them, so Jenny Lee almost miss it when---as the trail passed next to a steep dry wash---the oddly dressed person's spoor left the path and detoured up a steep dry wash.

The stranger must have been part mountain goat to have taken this particular wash, but the girl was a real good climber herself, and followed gamely, grabbing on to rocky handholds and protruding roots where she could.

Somewhere along here the shimmering splotches disappeared altogether, but it didn't matter now. She knew this rock-strewn dent in the terrain would end up at the same place the switchback trail would have taken her by a more leisurely route. The mouth of the old abandoned Lost Horse Mine. Which she reflected would be a very good place for someone to hide.



Epsilon Tau furrowed his brow, shifting the rods, cones and octahedrons in his eyes to night vision as he entered the cave. He was glad to be here, the sense of security that being inside this mountain gave him, even as he acknowledged that he wasn't going to get a lot of peace-assessing done holed up in here. How did today start out with such an epic clamboggle after yesterday's forays into human society had gone so well?

Or had they really? Now that he thought about it, those energetic shouts from passing vehicles as they swerved around him may not have been greetings after all. Universal translators weren't all they were cracked up to be, especially not in the first few hours, before they had a large enough sample of the local language to work with.

To test this suspicion he spoke the first words that had been hollered at him on this planet, which the translator circuits in his earrings had at the time informed him meant "donkey pit". The new translation was entirely different, and not nice at all!

After he had figured out that pedestrians were expected to keep to the edge of the road, or up on the "sidewalks" where such pathways were available, he had spent much of his first day on Sol 3 at that cultural artifacts shop in the adjacent geographical unit known as Farleyville.

That gentleman had been so nice---his very name meaning friend---that Epsilon Tau had blithely assumed the rest of Earth's population would be like this. And he’d felt confident that his report to the motherworld would be a positive one.

Now things didn't look so promising for the people of this little planet. Even though he'd really only ever cosigned the recommendation for the eradication of that one planet---Qo'noS---he knew that condemning whole worlds to death was about his least favorite thing to do.



Over the ridge in Farleyville, Broderick “Buddy” Phillips sat in the back room of BUDDY'S USED APPLIANCES, ANTIQUES & SUNDRIES, holding his left palm out under his right fist and dropping the six giant coins into it one by one. The heft of them, and the dull clink! clunk! clank! sound they made was very reassuring. It had been so long since he’d had anything worth keeping in the wall safe overnight he’d almost forgotten the combination.

He arranged them into a pattern on his desk, then a more pleasing pattern. Looked up at the clock. He still had an hour before he had to open his shop, so he decided to use the time responding to a rather strange letter that his old army pal George had sent him. He found a sheet of paper and his new cartridge pen and began:

Dear George,
Thank you for your last letter. You expressed a lot of concern that I might be “appalled” and disgusted by what you told me, and about this plan of yours. I can tell you honestly that I'm not appalled, although yes it did come as sort of a shock. And I'm afraid I'm a bit out of my element here regarding the "wrongness of body and spirit" you speak of, and this doctor of yours over there in Europe that you say can fix it. CAN THEY ACTUALLY DO SUCH A THING?! Modern medicine gets more amazing every year.

You expressed concern about my shop. I suppose my last letter was awfully gloomy + depressed, and I’m sorry if I worried you. Because I'm happy to report that things are looking up for me. Way up!! With one customer I earned enough yesterday to stay in business for at least another year. What was odd was that my customer sort of reminded of you and what you said in your letter. And I hope you won’t take offense after I describe him, because despite his strange behavior and the way he was dressed he was a kind and gentle person with a genuinely good soul. Like you~~~

At first I thought he was some lunatic I was going to have to chase away from the front of the store. The guy couldn't figure out how to use the door, kept waving his hand in front of it like that was supposed to open it. He was ungodly tall, and skinny as a rail, and was dressed like he'd put on men's & women's clothes at random, and then makeup- but in a really weird way. I don't know if he was a homosexual, or this other thing that you talk about, but I did know he was going to get his ass whupped running around dressed like that, especially heading toward the billiards hall, so I showed him in. I never imagined this odd duck would wind up saving my shop!

He said he was interested in "authentic artifacts", went around grabbing stuff, with no rhyme or reason to it, in a way that made me wondered if I should call the men in the white coats. But as I talked to him he was very polite, and was actually quite intelligent, except that somehow he didn't seem to know what anything was. I mean the simplest things, like a toaster. And as I explained each item to him, he would usually decide to buy it, wrote the retailer with an appreciative chuckle, Appliances, antiques, and just downright junk. It was all "fascinating" and "splendid!" to him.

But so anyway



As Edna refilled the Stuckey boys’ cups for the fourth time she sensed motion out of the corner of her eye. The man some referred to as Bowerton Springs' “village idiot” was waving merrily to her from just four feet away.

"Hmmmm,” she muttered, “He don't normally do that…"

Spastic Augie had ventured much closer to the Brothers than he usually ever came. Even with the diner's window between himself and them this seemed unusually brave of Augie. She shrugged, and waved back at him just as exuberantly as he'd waved.

Through some strange attunement of his swiss-cheesed brain Augie knew that Lyle and Kyle couldn’t come flying out the front door to get him. And as soon as Edna turned to attend to some other customer he pointed his finger and pantomimed mocking laughter, leaning back and clutching his little pot belly with his other hand.

He was finally getting a small measure of payback for all the vicious things they had done to him, like the “bath” they had given him the other week with a bucket of used crankcase oil.

"Why I'll kill that no-account simp!" hissed Lyle, the veins on his forehead bulging scarily. He scrabbled and flailed helplessly in his seat, going nowhere, while Eddie started doing jumping jacks and making poopie noises at them around his extended tongue.



Buddy Phillips drew meditatively on his pipe and blew a plume of cherry scented smoke toward the ceiling fan overhead. He continued writing his letter:

And so anyway, the odd fellow kept piling things onto the counter until there wasn't any counter left. So when it comes time to pay, I'm thinking OH BOY THIS SHOULD BE GOOD, figuring I'll be spending the next hour putting everything back. And sure enough he apologizes, saying he doesn't have any "us” dollars, which I'd pretty much figured. But then he pulls out these six giant coins like I'd never seen before. But I could tell they were solid gold~ worth at least $100 apiece!

It wouldve been real easy to swindle him he was such a babe in the woods, but I just couldn't. I tried to give him all but one of the coins back, but he went on + on about what pals we were, and damn if it didn't seem like we were. Once you got past his appearance he had a way of putting you at ease with his sincerity. And when he said these few coins were nothing to him, he had a whole trunk full of them and was glad to help me out in my time of need (which was odd since I hadn't mentioned my troubles), I believed it~~

So I'm wondering how he'll haul all this stuff out of here, but he has this silvery bag that keeps stretching & stretching, and he somehow gets it all in there. And then even though it looked like a stiff breeze could've knocked him over, he slings it over his shoulder, all 200+ pounds of it, and before he leaves he kisses me on the cheek, which that hypnotic sincerity of his made clear was just an act of friendship, but with what looked like four noses on his face it was damn unsettling~~~

That encounter made me think of you, and what you told me about yourself in your letter. I've been your friend since we were a couple of green draftees back in Fort Dix New Jersey, and so even if I'm not sure what to think about your "I was always meant to be a woman" stuff, what I do know is you're one of the most decent people I ever met and if this is what it takes to make you happy I say best of luck with it.

I've never heard of it a man being changed into a woman, so please make sure this doctor isn't a crook or some kind of nut before you go traipsing off to Denmark. What he is offering just sounds too good to be true.

For you I mean. Me I am content to stay what the Good Lord made me.

P.S.: Since you asked me, no I don’t think Ginger would be a good name for you to take as a woman. While it does have a certain moxie "Ginger Jorgensen" has a cheap ring to it that would make you sound like a fan dancer. That's my 2È» worth on the matter anyway. I’ll ask my wife Christine if she has any ideas ~~~



Back in the Regal Diner, Kyle muttered gravely to his brother, "You know it was HIM done this to us, don't you?"

"And how the hell could a spastic like him do this?"

“No not Augie. That big tall freak! He put th' whammy on us! Them wimmie-men, they gots th' powers!"


“But it's true! You know Choctaw Bobby? He was sayin' how they got two spirits!”

“Hell. You oughtta know better than to listen to anything that ig'nant heathen has to say,” smirked Lyle, “Of all the damn-fool notions! Hell, you might as well say that kitty cat clock up there done it!”

Kyle shrieked and whipped his head around to look at the clock, and then he really started carrying on. Nobody else saw it wink at him, but he swore to his dying day that the thing had.

Suddenly he was flailing and shrieking, “I just wanna go home! Just go home, go home, there's no place like home I just wanna go hooooooooooooome!"

And with these words of surrender he found himself able to leave the booth.

"Where ya goin'?" hollared Lyle, amazed that his dumbass brother had managed to do something he couldn't.

Now he too now abandoned all thought of going after the stranger, but just wanted to go out to One Eyed Lorreta's shack---that still she had back in the rushes---to purchase a do-the-job size jar of corn and go home and straight to bed with it.

Suddenly he was released as well. Hearing Kyle trying to start the truck, he bolted out the door- "Wait fer me!"



Epsilon Tau paced in the darkened mine drift. He knew he should be transmitting his first log entry about now, but knowing what it would say he couldn't bring himself to.

Though he wasn't old enough to remember the Nebula Wars, Epsilon Tau heard about them since he was a podling, and he was deeply devoted to the cause of peaceful cooperation between the planets. He had joined the Harmony Corps hoping to eventually attain a posting as a Helper on some interesting world, but he'd been aware that with his background and abilities he might very well have to spend some time as a Peace Assessor first, evaluating the spiritual essence of emerging technological civilizations and determining where---or if---they fit into the great scheme of the Galaxy. It was a role of the dice whether he’d have to or not, which he’d lost.

Being the Assistant Assessor for this sector hadn't been too bad, but with Zeezee's death he was now acting Prime Assessor, and it was now his place to decide the fate of this world, the most confusing and problematic planet he had yet been to. And may the Great Mother Eyeless have mercy on his soul...

He went over to a rock ledge in the wall of the cave and clicked on the old cathedral radio that he had purchased the previous day. The vacuum tubes warmed up, and a scary voice that called itself The Shadow was laughing spookily and talking about the ‘Evil in the Hearts of Men”. He quickly turned the knob, past the reportage of a ritual in which two men were apparently striking each other while hundreds of others cheered, until he found a musical program. It was called Louisiana Hayride.

Epsilon Tau smiled. He found the simple melodies and earnest sentiments of this region's music comforting.

A woman named Patsy Montana was introduced, and she sang a tune about a romantic love gone wrong, and how she realized she was to blame, having betrayed her mate in some unspecified way, and was begging for a chance to make things right again so they could ride their “old cayuses” across the range again side by side.

How could a people who produced music so heartbreaking, so rich with emotion and ethical nuance behave so awfully. Not just to him, that had really been nothing---but from what he was seeing in the collection of newspapers before him---to each other? He scanned one of the papers. Without using his scanner the text was indecipherable cuniform, but the pictures were of a war somewhere...

He felt her coming before he heard or saw her. Looking up he saw her small figure approaching, silhouetted against the mine tunnel's opening. She called to him in her small piping voice, "Hello? Mister- uh, Miss? May I come in?"


To Be Concluded...


Francis the Talking Mule:

The Kit Kat Klock thing was based on the metaphysical-paranoid ramblings of Jean Paul Sartre,
where he spoke of the malign power of meaningless objects. He musta taken way too much speed that week...

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