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“Take me to your leader,” said the voice above me.


I looked up.

“Oh, Mr. Fogg?” said Adelaide Jones from the third desk in the news room.

“Mr. Fogg!” said the man at my desk.

Observe that word: Man. I have no intention to be sexist. But, damn it all, if I called the thing standing at my desk, as green as a celery stalk — and looking about as stringy, may I add — anyway, as I say, if I called that thing Woman, I would be up on charges of degenerate sexism, which is hardly my intention. Please: let me call him a man. He was anything but. But I would rather not call it a her. I did have the evidence before me, moreover, of his wearing clothing stereotypically male, at least in our society: blue overalls, blue work-shirt, and a straw hat, out from which his antennae poked. The clothes looked good, if a big baggy on this particular vegetable.

“Mr. Fogg!” he said, having learned my name from Ms. Jones. “Take me to your leader!

“I’m afraid this company bought out the Telegraph Leader a couple years back,” I said. “The Daily Holograph’s the only game in town, now.”

“No, no!” the Celery Stalk said. “Your leader!”

I sighed. “I was afraid you said what you seemed to be saying. Let me tell you.” I lowered my voice so Adelaide could feign not overhearing. “We don’t brazenly say ‘leader’ around here, because it’s offensive to the unempowered and to all people on lower rungs of business or social hierarchies.”

He looked puzzled, insofar as a vegetable can look anything.

“Mr. Fogg?” Adelaide said. “If you don’t mind me interrupting. I was just wondering if you had mustard.”

“Actually, I do have mustard,” I said, pleased to have been asked.

“Because I brought a folio, and it’s pretty dry,” she said.

“Sandwich” has fallen out of the vocabulary, out of deference to the Islanders.

I looked at the celery at my desk.

“Mr. —?”

“Extwizl,” he said.

I think he said “Extwizl.” It may have been Xtwzl, for all I know. I wish I did. Getting native spellings correct is so aujourd’hui.

“Well, Mr. Extwizl? Would you be so good as to take this jar to Ms. Jones?”

I was glad this folio business came up. I had noticed Adelaide the other day in the way a young, male reporter will notice a new, young, female reporter — that is, in a non-reportorial way.

Mr. Extwizl moved with a complex up-jiggle, down-jiggle, swish-over, down-swoop, and up-jiggle again, accompanied by numerous micro-swivels. All this movement caused the orchestral batons that protruded from his occiputs to bounce up and down.

“Hey, thanks,” Adelaide said to the differently complexioned man, who handed her the mustand. “Say, that’s a nice departicularizer you have there.”

In the days before they realized how scientifically demeaning it was, people would have called it a “ray-gun.”

“Take me to your leader,” he said to her.

“On lunch hour?” she said. She shrugged, an uncommonly common expression of responsibility here at the Daily Holograph. “That would be Mr. Fogg.” She pointed to me.

He returned to my desk, turning colors as he advanced. He shaded down to such a dark green he would have been invisible in a fern bar.

“Take me to your leader!” he said.

“You’re still asking that, are you?” I said. “What you have to learn, Mr. Extwizl, is that we ignore people who use that word. You imply that the rest of us are followers! And this is a democracy, buster!”

“Very well!” said Extwizl. “You deny me!” He pointed his departicularizer at Addy. “If you don’t take me to your leader immediately, I will zot your co-worker’s ventral conic protuberances, beneath which I believe that vital organ, the beater, must lie!”

I put hands over eyes and elbows on desk. This walking vegetable was all suction cups.

“Mr. Extwizl,” I said. “Please. Around a lady!”

“A lady?” he said.

“A woman.”

“And what do you mean by that?”

“I mean she is a woman in just the sort of way I am a man. In the opposite way, that is. Get with it, my man.”

“I am not a man. You are of two sexes?”

“Only one, myself.”

“You don’t have one leader?” said Extwizl.

“I’m about all there is, during lunch hour.”

“But this one you call Ms. Jones is not your same sex?”

“Of course not. But I don’t know what that has to do with anything.” I said this even while glancing at her and realizing that, yes, indeed, it had a great deal to do with something. Maybe time had come to do something about that something.

When I looked back at our visitor I noticed his antennae had lost their quivering pertness. He reminded me of my philodendron at home. He could use a good watering.

“Mr. Fogg?” he said.


“Could you point me to your — facilities?”

“Certainly. Right over there.”

Once he was out of sight I felt elated and calm, having decided on a course of action.

“So,” I said to Addy, “I’ve been meaning to ask. How about supper tonight?”

“Hi, guys!” said Jodi Simmons, returning to her post at the news desk. Hardly a day passed but she cut short lunch to get back to work. A workaholic, we called her sort once, before people started wondering what workahol was, and where they could get some.

She rubbed her buzz-cut head while looking over Addy’s shoulder. “Any more news on those frigging meteors?”

“Meteorites, not meteors,” I said. “Once they hit Earth, they’re called —”

“Weird, isn’t it,” said Addy, reaching for the ringing phone. “They made such a big show coming down, then hardly a sound when they hit. You’d have expected the earth to shake or something.”

“Lots of guys that way,” Jodi said. “Hi, Ed.”

The janitor had just appeared at my desk.

“You look a little green, Ed,” I said.

Addy put her hand over the receiver. “Guy here claims things landed on his farm. Went to look, and someone gassed him. Stole his clothes.”

“I was wondering about the mess in the bathroom, Mr. Fogg,” said Ed, wiping his forehead with a hankie. “Want me to clean it up, or you folks want to snap pictures first?”

Ed, a big, solid, dependable mass of a man, sat squarely on the end of the human spectrum away from those who succumb to the sweats. Yet here he stood, mopping brow.

“What mess?”

“In the bathroom. Dead alien, looks like to me. Shot himself in the chest. Burnt a hole clear through.”

“Poor guy. But you know, Ed, you should watch your language. Take that word ‘alien.’ It’s got a pejorative ring. Why not just say, ‘a person of foreign birth,’ or call him by his country of origin? You could say Mexican, or Canadian, or Los Angelino. What was he?”

“Martian, is my guess.”

“Oh, that person of color,” said Adelaide.

“Must have had lunch at the Chinese Lantern,” I said. “MSG turns me green, too.”

“Then let’s not go there,” Addy said.

“A Martian cooked itself in the squatter?” whooped Jodi.

“You mean we have a date?” I said to Addy.

“Where’s that Wippett Snolligan?” Jodi banged her desk. “Let’s get holos of that baby! An alien, really, Ed?”

“Must have been that Extwizl,” I said. “Very troubled man. He thought this was a fishing supply store and kept asking for leader.”

Jodi hammered her desk again. “Get this on front screen! Get this out on the net!”

“Sorry,” I said. “We put Screen One to bed. We held it up long enough as it is, waiting for more meteorite stuff. Put it in tomorrow’s edition. Addy? Do we really have a date?”

“Only because you always look so spiffy. I mean, you know, the last guy who asked me out dressed in women’s clothes, if you can believe that.”

“Tomorrow!” Jodi rolled her eyes. “Holy Jesus on a hot plate, Fogg! Our very own walking meteor hops in the head and commits hari-kari and you don’t want to stop the presses?”

“So should I leave the mess for now?” said Ed.

“Oh, and this Mr. Hock on the phone,” said Addy. “He wants his clothes back.”

“Kind of a mess, now,” said Ed.

“You know, Jodi,” I said, “it’s pronounced hara-kiri. Or better yet, you should say seppuku, if you want the right word.”

“Wippett!” cried Jodi. “Get in here lickety-split! Here’s my headline, Fogg. ALIEN EXTWIZL SELF-SIZZLES! How’s that?”

“I’d be glad to clean it up for you folks,” said Ed, “if you just give the word.”

“There’s a word for that kind of headline,” I said to Jodi. “And you think it’s good enough leader to stop the presses?”

“Benny Fogg!”

The thickest newsroom babble could not block the stentorian voice of Jerome H. Wire, editor-in-chief of the Worcester County Daily Holograph.

He stalked to my desk preceded by the aromatic harbinger of martini, and led by the predatory beak of his hawklike visage.

He held the copy Addy and Jodi had prepared, shaking it as a dog shakes a sock.

“Am I to understand,” he said, “these events happened on your watch?”

“Yes,” I said, pleased at the recognition.

“Am I further to understand you planned to run nothing today? Nothing at all?”

I registered that Mr. Wire tempered his usual tenor of approval. In fact, I detected a baritone of opprobrium.

“Yes, sir,” I said, nearly audibly.

And am I to understand that you, Fogg, have gone clear out of your mind? Fogg, I cannot understand how you can be so unaware of your own stupidity when you make it so perfectly clear to everyone else!”

I never saw a kettle go to it so quickly. One moment, calm, balmy Mr. Wire, gaily shaking our copy. The next moment, tea-time.

Indeed, substance overflowed from Mr. Wire’s censorious spigot worthy of steeping the most stubborn tea bag.

About Benny Fogg, now. I must note that when placed in piquantly hot water, hot enough that I notice its advanced degree, in other words when it becomes very nearly post-graduate — then I come to. I wake up, so to speak. I find blood in my brain. A few thoughts on this and that zip through the noggin, usually on their way somewhere else. Occasionally one stops. As now.

“But Mr. Wire,” I said in my calmest voice, “of course we wanted nothing in today’s edition — because this was so big a story it needed a Special Edition.”

“Special Edition?”

“Special Ed! Set it up on the Net! Sure cure for mid-summer, low-readership doldrums. Subscribers see hot headline, and pay an extra two bits to access. Invasion by alien vegetables, boss!”

Wire looked skeptical. “Then why didn’t you interview this thing?”

“It was carrying a weapon. Besides, there must be more of those guys. I mean, an interview’s a cinch.”

Wire’s look of doubt wavered — sure sign of trouble. Then his smile broke like a sunrise.

“Excellent, Fogg,” he said. “So get going! Wipp! Go along! Send chunks of copy on the way there!” He twisted his hands behind his back and stalked a circle. “We’ll patch it together, put in as many sidebars as we need to fill it, and we’ll be in business. Grand, Fogg. I’ll get the ad people going pronto. Brilliant!”

“But Mr. Wire?”

“Go to it!”

“Guns. They have —”

“You faced one down before! Go, Fogg!”

“But maybe if I had backup, maybe the County Regiment or the Kidscouts, or —”

“And have word get out? And have our story scooped?”

“But Mr. Wire —”

“Fogg! Are you this moment not out the door and gone? Fogg? Fogg! I ask you!” He cried this out using full diapason and swell of his majestic pipe organ, reminding me of the fact — excuse the sidebar — that the Vikings used the rune for “Os” to describe the wisdom of their headsman. In reality, “Os” simply meant he was some loud-mouthed old bastard. A good leader needed to be heard, especially when a fierce, salt-encrusting gale swept the boards and tattered the sails. He needed to shoot the breeze, so to speak. Or raise a storm himself. Just so in the modern newsroom.

Thusly reminded of Wire’s qualifications, I answered his question with action rather than words, showing Wire and the newsroom my most sterling, not to speak of my back, side.

“Wipp, I am in the deep poop,” I said to the man once we found ourselves safely in the van. I wiped the sweat from my brow and waited for the air-conditioning to kick in. “Hot Days for Mid-July” had been one of our inspired headlines for today’s edition. “I believe I have never been deeper in the poop than I am right now.”

He nodded judiciously. “Yes,” he said in that relaxed way of his.

“I mean, will we come out alive? Who knows? These are beings from outer space, Wipp. Aliens. Extra read-all-about-it terrestrials, Wipp!”

“Ah. Yes,” he said, with feeling.

We spun out of the lot, with Wipp at the wheel and me at command-and-control. A map appeared on my fore-screen: the way to Hock Hoggery, at the edge of W. County, sent by A. Jones.

“And now look at this. Here at the bottom,” I said.

“Can’t. Driving.”

“She says, ‘Hold on dinner plans till you make good with Wire.’ From Addy Jones. A cancellation of my date, Wipp!”

“You have a date?”

“It took all lunch hour finagling that.”

“Weren’t you dealing with an alien?”

“Well, yes, that, too.”

“You outdid yourself, Fogg.”

“I suppose I did,” I said, feeling better.

“And landed yourself in —”

“Don’t say it!”

If I have postponed describing Wippett Snolligan, I have done so out of a sense of inadequacy. I am in awe of the man, his mind, and his abilities. His life spans larger than the page.

Turning a cold gaze upon him, however, reveals the salient facts, viz., that he is no taller than me, and I stand no taller than Addy, who I guess to be five-eight; of ruddy complexion, as though he loved a good, sleety wind rather than a shower in the morning; and of stouter build than mine, with more lumpishness about the arm from toting apparatus. A sound man all around.

“Wipp,” I said, “I need your brains. How do I get an interview out of these aliens? As soon as they discover I’m responsible for the death of their front scout, they’ll be tough subjects.”

“But the alien did himself in, I thought.”

“Yes, but I pushed the poor turnip into it, Wipp. I must have. I see that now. I had a little conversation with him. I must have been a bit strong. Manly words, you know, the way you might talk to a bowl of lettuce to crisp it up.”

“Then they must not have much spine for abuse.”

“If they’re vegetables they have no spine.”

“Why don’t you tell me what happened exactly, Fogg?”

I filled him in on the precise details of the noon-hour, fudging only in toning down my obvious heroism and nobility of carriage during the affair. Modesty pays, I have learned; and one might as well be paid, since sometimes one is paid immodestly.

“All that,” he said, when I finished, “suggests easy success in the field.”

“Except for this,” I said, pointing to my screen. “Sometimes I regret the invention of electronic communication.”

He regarded me questioningly.

“Look at my situation,” I said. “I’m headed into vast danger. Now shouldn’t I set out with the knowledge I can return to outstretched arms — or at least favoring glances — or, failing that, at least a date with an esteemed member of the sex opposite?

“But no. Here I set out with this devious arrow through the heart.”

“It’s tough,” he said.

“Think what it would have done to modern literature,” I said, “if they’d had this stuff back in the first war. Imagine Hemingway heading for the Italian front, only to receive e-mail to the effect that his devoted nurse might not love him anymore. Wouldn’t his prose have limped then? That fine, athletic style, in a sling and with a crutch!”

“I don’t think Hem met the nurse till he was wounded, Benny,” Wipp said.

“But you get the point.”

“But suppose she wants to test you. To see if you’re tough.”

“How do you mean?”

“She’s seen you in fine form with an alien once, right? So she tightens the screws. Makes it a challenge to you. To see if you still cut a good figure.”

The words sounded plausible. “So I have to convince her I’ve withstood being unmanned, is that it? Presuming I do, that is.”

“Benny,” he said. “Consider. You are head of this expedition to Hock’s farm, yes?”


“Consider, then. Doesn’t it happen that news-people sometimes find themselves in a position requiring action? Sometimes one must step in, abandon objectivity, and take center stage — because no one else is there to take events in hand, right?”

“Wipp, you inspire me. I should be such a one, in such a situation, you’re saying?”

“The opportunity may arise,” Wipp said. “So what I think, Benny, is that if we can get a holo of you on the front screen of this Special Edition, engaged in the fearless defense of Mother Earth and Farmer Hock, then A. Jones will lack any reason to question your stalwart nature.”

“Stalwart! Wipp, with you at my side —”

“At your side? I forgot to mention my blind.”


“I carry it around for bird photos. I’ll have to use it here. Otherwise the aliens might attack — approach, that is — me, instead of you. If they approached me, how could I catch a holo of you defending Mother Earth?”

With that we swung off the road and under the sign of Hock’s Hoggery. The addenda scrawled beneath those large letters — bits of levity such as, “Knowledge is power,” which I recognized as Bacon — failed to lift my heart, however, as the vision danced before my eyes of one Benny Fogg confronting the alien horde in a solitary way, so solitary that it might be characterized as being very, very alone.

“If we may ask a few questions,” Wippett said to Farmer and Mrs. Hock, who stood one behind the other at the door of the farmhouse, being of proportions unsuited to standing side-by-side in any confined space. “It might help us out.”

“What kind of questions?” Farmer Hock’s round face had such a rubescent flush to it I suspected he perched on the edge of explosion at, say, someone who happened to rap at his door with firm, reportorial fist.

“Well, we’re here to look into this situation —”

“I want them out!”

“We’re reporters, sir.”

“Out! Now! I don’t care who you are!”

I remembered Wipp’s injunction to welcome any opportunities for heroism, and said, with hope within me, “Well, Mr. Hock, we’ll do what we can. I noticed you don’t seem to have suffered any violence from them, at least.”

“No violence! How about being knocked out from behind!”

“You said it was gas, dearest,” Mrs. Hock said. She looked much like the farmer, with the same roundness of face and body, and even similar overalls, although of a daintier cut and design, being brightly floral. In personality, however, she seemed much the sweeter.

“All right, they gassed me!” Entering a worked-up state evidently provoked huffs and heefs from Farmer Hock, who was taking on the appearance of a steam-driven tractor of yore, regularly venting and gnashing and in general looking intimidating. “Gassed me! Yes! And they didn’t do it once, they’ve done it every time I’ve wandered into that pen! And I’d just dumped fresh slop loaded with fifty buckets of rotting potatoes and apples in the trough, so it’s just crying out for some pigs. But every time I get near, to let them in — wisst! — they gas me, and I wake up naked! First pen there, beyond the shade. Aw-huff. Heef! Naked!”

“Naked?” I shaped a picture of the enemy. If they gassed first, answered questions later, it could lead to an awkward interview.

“Naked as a pig, that’s how they leave me. They’ve probably taken twenty sets of suspenders in two days.”

“They want your clothes?”

“Hell knows what they want. They lurk around back there, aw-huff, waiting for me. They take my clothes and wear them!”

I took this in with a twinge of panic. I had hoped for guidance from the farmer. Farmers, in general, know how to deal with vegetables. I had expected a tip or two. Thus aided, I would have approached the aliens with the kind of bravery and fortitude that has characterized the Fogg line since Grandpa, old Beezer Fogg, earned the Purple Heart at the Bulge.

The farmer ah-hoofed. “It’s no way to treat a man.”

“Well, at least there’s room in the closet, now,” said Mrs. Hock.

Around the house we obtained a view of the sheds. The two largest met by means of a tin arch, which created a sheltered place that gave shade against such days as this. To the left we saw a few rotund creatures. Some grubbed around the fence or thrust their heads ear-deep in muck, grunting their contentment.

Through the arch, in the sunlight beyond, marched a row of figures I recognized by the antennae and overalls. They moved in formation, bob-bobbing and occasionally hooting.

“It all comes clear, Wipp,” I said. “Here’s the plan. I’ll go through the arch, but I’ll wait a moment there while you go up and find a good vantage point — say, the top of that shed. Look, there’s a ladder. The trough Hock mentioned must be on the other side.”

“And the purpose for being on the shed?”

“Station yourself there, in your blind.” I prided myself for remembering to include it. “Then set out a remote, to hover in midair, to get shots of me approaching the aliens. You can shoot the rest from your position up there. It’ll be great, Wipp.”

“And what exactly are you going to do?”

“I’m going to use my big flapper. It’s what I’m best at, Wipp. I’ve just decided that. And I figure I have a simple message to deliver to these aliens. I’ve reviewed the facts of the case and see that now. What did our poor alien Extwizl want, after all? Our leader! Do we have one? No! At least I don’t think so, unless you count Mr. Wire, and who would travel across interstellar space to find him? These guys must have a simplistic political philosophy, and think everyone’s like peas in a pod. So all I have to do is go up to them and say I’m the leader.”


“Why not? That’ll buy me time to reason with them, as I did with Extwizl.”

“And they’ll all commit suicide? But you don’t even know why Extwizl did it!”

“I’m sure to hit on it. Just talking seemed to wilt Extwizl a bit. And if they’re pliable, they might do anything. It’s like you can make a limp stalk of celery do all kinds of table tricks a fresh one won’t. Maybe they’ll just leave. But that’s the plan, Snolligan! Let’s to it!”

“Now, Benny, if I may suggest —”

“No, Wipp. As you said, I’m head of this expedition. I’m off. I’ll give you a few minutes to get positioned. Then I’ll make my move. Let’s go!”

I found my post, settled in, and eyed the aliens. This affair looked easy. The hardest part, I decided, would be taking the deep breath required for my lengthy disquisition, being bathed as I was by such delicate air as surrounds pig farms.

Steeling myself, I stepped into the shade beneath the arch. I prepared to take in a gulp of air for my assault. I would sweep upon them, the Leader of Mother Earth, with such a rapid-fire, full-force word-volley that these vagrant vegetables could hardly help being disarmed.

I took in the prodigious breath, only to find that what I gulped fell short in the farm-country, eau-de-grange department. I whiffed in an intoxicating cocktail that included compounds foreign to the customary oxygen-nitrogen, so that my mind, full as it was moments before, emptied to become blank as that old bane of newspaper writers — the blank page — which intimidated poor hacks back in the age before the horror of the endless scroll of the blank screen, which is a terror to even the most talented of the verbally ept.

“But I am the leader!” I managed that even as I reeled. “I am the leader!”

I saw the vegetable fiends that had crouched in wait for me, on each side of the shaded space. They sprayed me again with whatever perfume they preferred in visitors. I felt faint. I was scrolling down into the Page Down of unconsciousness.

I was going, going, going, as they say; and try as I might to say something about an experience that lacked any qualities except the absence of qualities, I must rest my description on the good Anglo Saxon word that typically follows going, going, and going:


Not long gone, however. It seemed only a second passed.

Yet I faced evidence to the contrary.

I judged this not from the absence of the vegetable aliens, who had bobbed off and were hooting somewhere to the right.

I judged this from the absence of something else.

My clothes.

My clothes had appropriated my former state of consciousness: gone.

I picked myself up and stared down in disbelief. You may not think the sight of your own skin shocking. Try it at an unexpected moment, then. Knock yourself out by surprise, have friends strip you, and then rouse yourself in a dim, head-swimming kind of way. Then take full gander at your skin, which you will find stretches from crown to corn, an unremovable dermal underwear covering everything except a few visible bones in the mouth, which escape by the skin of their teeth. The skin’s very prevalence, its very overall-ness, its quality of being so tellingly and acutely you will call forth an ounce of embarrassment per pound of flesh. If you have darker hue of skin consider the luck of your situation. If, like me, however, you have too little pigment, you will find yourself displaying not only a full stretch of intimacy, but also its blood-carrying capacity at overload, until you become a billboard of emotion, a full-frontal affair, at which point we say of your composure that which we have said already of other aspects of the situation: gone.

Thus I found myself. I bolted.

Even after the shock of having Sun strike every plane, bulge, and protuberance of skin and reflect it up at the unsuspecting eye, I remained in control during my retreat, giving my flying limbs a sensible command, viz., to find clothes. I perceived where the nearest covering might be: atop the neighboring pig shed. I would don Wippett’s bird-blind.

I zipped to the pen and leapt the low fence over which, beyond a stretch of dusty, hoof-beaten earth, I saw the ladder that led to the shed’s top.

At that moment I became a believer in mental teleportation.

Normally I dismiss those powers ranked among the “paranormal” unless scads of careful experiments point toward the incontrovertibility of the phenomenon. I like the falsifiable test, and the steady, slow, thick-brained kind of study that unfortunately your normal psychic can see right through.

In this instance, however, I believed instantly.

For I had forgotten about the pigs.

I hung midair, just past the fence over which I had gaily swung myself, naked, and saw, below me, a mass of pigs, exactly more or less where I was to land. Around them stood more, scattered in that haphazard way of pigs.

You might think I hold something against jiggly, fat things on hooves. Not so. At the moment, however, they startled me, and I startled them. They saw me loom above them, a naked man, and squealed. I saw them below me, and I squealed likewise, because, with so many nerves exposed to open air, I was in a state far from the Fogg norm of sangfroid and phlegm. Truthfully, I suspect the high pitch, intensity, and not very yippy nature of my utterance would have made it difficult to distinguish my squeal from the properly executed scream. I made a full-throated effort of which any dedicated screamer would have felt proud.

The concordance of human and pig squeals — we are said to be closely related, biologists tell us, which may help illuminate this strange situation — may have created a harmonic resonance. The sudden eruption of movement among the massed pigs may have exerted an effect, as well: undoubtedly they moved into a subconscious mandala that ripened the situations potential for psychic occurrence.

Whatever the case, I found myself one instant hovering startled over a congress of equally startled pigs, and, in the next, scrambling up the ladder to the top of the shed, my feet never once having touched soil of pen. I had moved a good twenty-five feet, and had no memory of doing so. I accept without question that instantaneous teleportation is a done and accomplished thing.

In my haste up the ladder I failed to notice the heat in the wood, imparted by the blazing Sun. I then pranced onto the corrugated metal of the roof, barefoot — and continued to prance, alarmed at the earthly version of Protestant Hell I discovered there, high above the pig-yard where I had engaged in ungodly psychic transport. Moreover the steel roof danced with me, coming unmoored with every booming footfall — what little booming could be heard above the sizzling of soles on metal. To make things worse, Wippett had fled. He stood nowhere in sight. His bird-blind likewise. I pranced in perplexity. I put down one gingery, reluctant foot after the next. That next, unfortunately, unbalanced a section of roof. I felt myself go down. The next moment, I felt a tremendous thwack in my rear as the other end of the sheet-metal swung up and biffed me with a sizzler, sending me up and over the side.

I wish I could again say I proved the efficacy of psychic transport. However, as I hung once again midair, I did see my salvation. Beneath me I saw a trough of water, to catch and cool me.

I fell without a splash, which gave me a clue as to my mistaken perception.

The trough being deep, I submerged fully before gathering myself and pushing up for air. I opened my mouth and, in a rare and brief vacation from being self-collected, I bellowed with a volume that would have done justice to the elephantically voiced Mr. Wire himself. I pulled rotten apples and potatoes from my eye sockets and nostrils, jumped from the morass, and high-tailed it for the farmhouse, the pigs rioting clamorously over what must have seemed a terrible tease, me going past so quickly and smelling so exquisitely edible.

To avoid painful exploration of fresh wounds, I will note simply that following an outdoors hose bath, the judicious application of a large leaf from the bur oak, and a perplexing moment in a voluminous closet, I emerged from the farmhouse in the ruling Hock style. Except that the Hocks had run out of his overalls, which left me the choice of hers.

I emerged at a run, screaming, “Wippett!”

I had no knowledge of the whereabouts of the man. For all I knew, the vegetables had absconded with him to some distant star. If so, there would be hell to pay at the Holograph. If not, likewise. For I had managed neither the interview nor the heroic gesture, which meant my pork was cooked with A. Jones, for I had failed to appease the unappeasable Wire. The Special Edition was hamstrung. The pig of doom had squealed.

As I flung myself out the farmhouse I tumbled into Wipp.

He picked himself back up and stood calmly, a stalk of wheatgrass in his mouth — the picture of a hayseed.

“Wipp,” I managed. “You’re OK!”

He nodded at my outfit. “You’re OK, too.”

“Where were you?” I cried. “You weren’t on the roof!”

“It looked on the unsteady side. I went around the other way.”

“But when they saw you, didn’t they —?”

He shook his head. “I guess you don’t understand them well enough, Benny. I gave it a little thought before I went near. You see, they’re vegetables. You know that. Moreover they’re hive-like. You might think of ants, or bees. You saw how they all moved together, in formation.”

“Line dancing, I thought.”

“It’s a function of their being so interconnected. Must be their antennae. They radio-broadcast or something to each other. Social plants, you know.”

“Anti-social enough to gas me. Even after I told them I was the leader.”

“I think they already knew you weren’t. That interconnectedness, you know. That one Extwizl told the rest, so of course they didn’t believe you. But that’s just as well, because if they’d thought you were the leader, you wouldn’t have been too happy. The Extwizls want our queen, actually.”

“Extwizls? They all call themselves that? But wait a minute. Queen?”

“Group-identity, Benny. These are hive plants. They’re all worker-plants, or drone-plants, whatever you want to call them. They have some individuality, but mostly they’re subservient to the hive. Or to their king, in this case.”

I considered this, and gave my reasoned opinion. “Ah,” I said.

“They’re an interstellar species, Benny, spread out over a godawful number of worlds. They set up colonies here and there. But that means the kings have to do a lot of traveling, to ferry pollen. It’s your usual act of insuring genetic variability in the species, just on a galactic scale.”

“But if this was all a chummy, perpetuation-of-the-species type social visit, then why did Extwizl draw his departicularizer?”

“That was a spore-bearer,” said Wippett. “Sure, it works like a gun, in case they have to do a run on cell chambers and force the pollen in. The politics of sex — well, it’s pretty screwy in our own species, too. But anyway, that departicularizer was —”

“I got it,” I said, the light switching on. “I thought it was a pistol, but really it was a stamen.”

“And that Extwizl,” Wipp said, “was just an expendable pollen-bearer. You weren’t reacting right, and the plants here were beginning to wonder if they hadn’t landed on another king-hive instead of a queen-hive. So they gave him a cease-and-desist order. They were practicing their military formations here, and taking on local disguise as they could, in case they were getting into a territorial scuffle.”

“You know, Wipp, I still don’t know how you kept from getting gassed. You’re holding out on me.”

I detected a certain hesitancy as he said, “Well, as I said, or maybe I didn’t, I saw you get gassed, and thought maybe I’d get around it somehow. Because what did they want? They seemed to want your clothes. So I just went buck-naked, and they weren’t bothered a bit and let me go up and talk to them.”

“Naked? You?”

“Might have a little sunburn in odd places. But don’t you want to know why they left?”

“They left!”

“They did. I convinced them it was no use, this effort of theirs. Not on this planet. We’re animals, and we’re individuals. We do it individually. I had to draw pictures in the sand, because after all I only had me, naked, for a sample. I didn’t have, say, Addy Jones along.”


“Well, they looked at my pictures. Seems they recognized the images of man and woman from an old metal plate their king picked up at some interstellar swap-shop. Plus it helped them understand what you’d told that first Extwizl. When I pointed out that one, the man, was Farmer Hock, and the other, the woman, was Mrs. Hock, why, they all understood. Turns out one of those pair of overalls —”

“No wonder Farmer Hock was so mad.”

“So, anyway, they believed me, and they left,” said Wippett. “It was kind of like spoiling someone’s date.”

We headed for the Holograph full of confidence. I sent story and sidebars ahead, while Wipp told me he sent some stunner pics. I felt the kind of triumph my Grandpa Beezer must have felt after tripping over his shoelaces in the Ardennes and shooting himself in the foot, while within spitting distance of enemy fire: the triumph of going home to medals.

Then a vision swam into my mind.

“Wipp,” I said. “What exactly did you find in that holo-cam of yours? I mean, what were these stunner pics you sent Wire?”

“Oh, I found a few good ones,” he said. He pointedly gazed out his side window, even while driving.

“Nothing — revealing, I suppose?”

“Oh, I suppose not.”

“Nothing that might strike a — say, a personal note? Nothing to which we might attach the sensitive adjective of ‘naked’?”

“Oh, no, Benny. No skin. Not a bit.”

I mean it as a tribute to Wippett Snolligan when I say I trusted him. Since he said the tender adjective could not be attached, I shelved fears of said adj. with confidence.

“Fogg!” called a voice from the newsroom. “Snolligan!”

Jerome H. Wire’s voice bellowed out genially and nearly within normal decibels.

There, on the large screen to one side of the newsroom, where blow-ups of the latest edition were projected for final proofing, loomed the lead screen of our latest, the Special, the issue for which we two, Fogg and Snolligan, had risked necks. And there —

There, on the wall, just below a huge two-word headline that burst out:


There, there, in the middle where even the most accidentally slipping eye, meandering aimlessly across the page, would stumble upon it:

There, there, even I saw that there was the picture of one reporter of personal note.

“Wippett!” I squeaked.

“You aren’t naked,” he said.

“Not in the exactly naked sense, no. But underneath! I’m wholly naked there!”

“Not so as you’d notice.”

Jerome Wire stood beaming at this uncomfortable revelation flaring upon the wall. “Fogg and Snolligan, you guys are geniuses! This will sell! We’ve got an edition with ‘Special’ all over it!”

“But boss,” I said, “that’s me up there.”

“No modesty now, Fogg.” He smiled and waved his hand over the image. Knowledge dawned on me as to what exactly Wippett had sent: an audio-holo. “As Wipp says down here in the caption, the aliens wouldn’t have gone, despite good reason, if you hadn’t resorted to this desperate scare tactic! Way to think, Fogg. I’ll have to stop saying your brains live up to your name!”

At the wave of his hand, the monster out of the trough-muck, with rotten-apple eyes and a glistening skin of festering, oil-streaked goop, opened what seemed to be a mouth and bellowed — Aaoooough! — with a moan and a sound of deep-seated disgust and anger. It scared the bazeezus out of me, even!

Wire snapped his fingers and walked off with contentment in his saunter.

“Pretty frigging snappy, guys,” yelled Jodi.

“Hey, not bad,” said Adelaide.

I brought myself up and pulled my collar.

“Well,” I said. “I guess I don’t look so bad, do I? I’d almost call it —”

“Heroic,” Wipp said, nodding. “Yes. I’d say so.”

“Heroic? Maybe,” Adelaide said. “But don’t you think they’d look better on someone else?”

By the time I realized she meant Mrs. Hock’s floral overalls, Addy had turned and gone.

“Well, Fogg,” said Wippett Snolligan, patting my back, “the Universe is a pretty strange place, isn’t it?”

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