Traducido al inglés por Daniel W. Koon
“Customer,” Goyo yelled as he snuck into the bathroom.
Greta put aside her crossword magazine to watch the motor home that was entering the lot. She didn’t need a second glance to know which of the units it was and who had rented it. Of course, Goyo always invented some excuse not to have to wait on the grays. Understandable, up to a point, and so Greta had let it slide. But nowadays, seven of every ten clients were grays, and Greta had not put Goyo on the payroll so that she could run the business all by herself.
She left the magazine on the desk and went out to the yard. For her, a client was a client and the grays always paid well. They didn’t even haggle over the price. These days, with the hippies all dead or morphed into yuppies, there were only two kinds of clients: drunks and grays. And Greta knew which kind she preferred.
The motor home came to a complete stop and the side door quickly opened. Greta tried to steady her nerves as the first appendage appeared and then touched the ground. Two more legs followed and finally the neck that supported its head. The grays measured nearly two meters tall and seemed to have no torso, only a long broad neck which connected their head to their strange circular hips.
The other grays were coming out behind the first one. An entire family, complete with a pet, some sort of very disagreeable, long-legged lizard. Greta counted seven grays, three more than were listed in the register: clearly the three youngest ones. And although the rental fee was not based on number, it bothered her to think that they had been using her motor home as a breeding pad.
The gray that had signed the rental agreement and had paid her approached. She recognized him because he was the tallest. He stopped in front of Greta, who was still looking at his legs.
“Everything was fine, very comfortable,” the gray said with that solemn and monotonous tone that they used, like a drunk struggling to speak clearly.
The motor home’s ceiling, despite its being one of their tallest models, was only 180cm from the ground throughout. But if it had been cozy for this gray, then she was not about to argue.
“I’m going to take a look around,” Greta said, instinctively avoiding eye contact with him.
“Of course. Proceed. Make yourself at home.” The gray’s laugh reminded her of Lurch from the Addams Family.
She steadied herself before entering, but the stench inside the motor home was always worse than she remembered. She looked around quickly to see if there was any damage, although she knew that all she was going to find was the dirt and disorder characteristic of the grays. Maybe a little more than usual. Maybe her excessive courtesy prompted the grays to lower their standards even further. Maybe the vandalism would begin next time.
She stepped down from the motor home, grateful for the fresh air of the outside. She was inclined to scold the gray, to tell them to be more careful from now on, that there’s a limit of tolerance even for disorder. But when she looked at him, all her anger vanished, leaving her empty. And that void was replaced by such a sudden unease that Greta could barely keep from crying.
It was their eyes, she knew. There weren’t many people who could look a gray in the eyes without experiencing as profound a sadness as the sadness that those eyes expressed. Melancholy eyes that seemed to be on the verge of shedding a tear that never fell.
Greta knew that it was not a tear, merely an appendage which served to protect them from some kind of parasite on their home planet. That the sadness in their eyes was merely what the humans had read into them. But if that look had been enough to fool the UN representatives into letting them remain on Earth, then she could hardly be expected to be immune to them.
“Everything in order, Mr. ... KjiriKirst,” she said, reading his name from the rental agreement. ”You’re free to go if you wish.”
“Are you going to sign it?” the gray asked, watching her and the folder in her hands and getting on her nerves.
“Yes, of course.”
Greta always put off signing until they asked, not to gain some kind of leverage, but just out of curiosity, to see if any of them would forget. So far none had. She took the agreement from the registration folder, stamped the return date and made the chickenscrawl that she used as a quick signature.
The gray stretched out his forward hand to take the paper that Greta in turn extended toward him with two fingers, trying to avoid touching that ashen skin with the shiny, wet appearance. It always reminded her of a frog’s skin. Then, with long steps, the gray walked over to the other six who were waiting for him at the entrance.
Greta watched them disappear and turned to face the motor home and the disagreeable task that faced her. Although she was resigned to checking it over herself, would it be asking too much for Goyo to get over his phobias once and for all and clean one of those units?
She climbed aboard the motor home again, this time cranking all the windows and hatches wide open. After a while the air inside was almost breathable, and she could walk through the vehicle from end to end.
The arrival of the grays had sparked a rebirth in the sales of motor homes and rolling houses, although most of them still preferred the original models, because they were more spacious. Goyo said that having wandered in their space ship for so many generations after the loss of their home planet, they had grown accustomed to the Gypsy lifestyle, to carrying their home from one place to another. Greta just thought that they liked to travel.
As she was picking up old food cans - they loved fish - and empty cookie wrappers, her blood began to boil again. She felt stupid for allowing herself to be taken in by that look. She did not know whether they did it on purpose, but it bothered her that it worked on her.
Besides, if they had three legs and were capable of using their arms and their eyes independently - “dissociation” they called it on TV - then you would think that they could clean up a little better. Instead, they seemed to have developed a special talent for making a mess.
She was about to finish cleaning and to tell Goyo to take over when she saw it. It was in a corner of the room in the back of the motor home, the one with the king-sized bed - a mattress which took up three quarters of the room - covered with a pile of clothes. Greta had almost broken when she had kicked the clothes up into the air.
“Goyo!” she called, franticly; then she mumbled to herself, “for the love of God, it can’t be... GOYO!”
“Coming, coming,” Goyo appeared immediately, almost as if he were waiting for her yell. “What’s up? Do you want a hand with all this?”
Greta did not look at him. She had a pile of clothes in her hand and was looking into the corner with a panicked face, as if she had discovered a cockroach or a spider. Goyo looked at the corner.
It was an egg. With an odd appearance, like it had translucent skin. Gray.
“It’s... it’s an egg,” Goyo said.
“Yes, of course it’s an egg, you idiot! What are we going to do with it?”
“Do? I don’t know...”
“Come here. Help me,” Greta said, taking a step toward the egg.
Goyo retreated a step toward the door to the room.
“No. It’s yours. It’s in your motor home and you found it.”
“That is not mine! And it’s not yours either! I want you to help me get it out of here!”
“Me? I’m not crazy! My contract doesn’t say anything about touching extraterrestrial eggs or anything like that...”
Goyo disappeared through the doorway. Greta started to run after him but knew that it was useless: he wasn’t going into that motor home ever again. He was scared. And she was too, although her rage masked the fear a little. What right did those grays have to abandon their child!
She approached the egg, holding a t-shirt she had found as if it were a baby’s receiving blanket. She wrapped the egg as best she could - the fabric immediately stuck to the surface and it was impossible to adjust its position - and she tried to lift it, but it was glued to the ground. She pushed lightly. Nothing. And she didn’t feel like applying any more force. What would happen if she broke that gray skin, so fragile looking, that it had instead of a shell? Would she be liable for murder?
But she didn’t want to leave it there either, in her motor home, for one second longer. And the rage that this intrusion had stirred in her got the job done: with utter disgust she began peeling the egg’s skin away from the carpeting with her fingers, bit by bit, cursing when she found that it glued itself back in place if she wasn’t careful.
Fifteen endless minutes later she left with the egg through the door of the motor home, with the feeling that it was she herself who had recovered her freedom.
Although there still remained one problem left to solve: what to do with the egg.
Goyo was in the office. He shuffled some papers when he saw her enter.
“Stop pretending to look busy, would you,” Greta grumbled. “And clear off that desk for me, so I can put this down.”
Goyo hustled to do as she asked. Greta lowered the egg carefully, cursing when she saw that a finger had stuck to it.
“Grays lay eggs, right?” she asked, as if there were some other possibility.
“Yes,” Goyo said, self-assuredly; a second later he added, with a trace of doubt, “at least I think so...”
“You sure are a lot of help, you know?” Greta looked at the egg. “And what am I supposed to do with this?”
“Sit on it?” Goyo said.
Greta looked at him with a homicidal stare. And one second later the two of them burst out laughing.
They had a long laugh and at the end, Greta felt exhausted: “Oh God... I really don’t know what to do with this thing.”
And without the strength to remain standing, she grabbed a folder which had been lying on one of the chairs and sat down. She stared at the folder a second before reacting.
“The agreement!” she cried out, turning to Goyo, “The rental agreement!”
She opened the folder, gripped with excitement, and ran through the form with the tip of her finger. Her disappointment was as sudden as her joy: there was hardly any information. Just the gray’s last name and the motor home model.
“Why the hell isn’t this file complete?” she turned toward Goyo. “How difficult is it to fill out a form with a telephone number or an address?”
“You’re the one that filled out that form, Greta.”
Greta kept her cool and looked at the form. He was right. It was her handwriting. To speed up the contract and to keep the client from having second thoughts, she had always put off completing it until after the vehicle was returned. But, once the client had returned the motor home, what was the point of filling it out?
KjiriKirst. That was the gray’s first name, or last name, or whatever.
“KjiriKirst,” she said out loud. “How am I going to find him?”
“Google him?” Goyo suggested, half-timidly.
Greta looked at him like he was an idiot, but then thought better of it. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea. No, it wasn’t a bad idea at all. How many people named KjiriKirst could there be in the telephone directory? Only a gray would call himself that. And how many of them could there be with that particular name?
“Goyo, you’re a genius. I never get tired of saying that,” and she gave him a kiss on the forehead before sitting down in front of the computer.
Goyo looked at her, hesitating, and went towards the door.
“This... I’m going to clean the motor home...”
“Sure, sure,” Greta said, while she waited for the system to boot up so that she could begin her search.
Seven hundred thirty four. That was the number of people with the last name - or first name - KjiriKirst.
“That’s pretty bad,” she said, and she entered the name once more, checking the upper case and lower case letters.
But that was the number.
Greta did not understand. When they got here, two years ago, there had been only two hundred grays. And now there were more than 700 with the same last name! God, they do breed like rabbits! Suddenly the claims the antigrays had been making no longer seemed so unreasonable.
Out of idle curiosity, she continued down the page. After the KjiriKirsts came the KjiriKrindts, and the KjiriKtrisses. And then, the KjiriKhints.
“My God!” she gasped as she added them up. There were some 2400 of them in all, and that was without searching for other surnames.
“But what does that matter now? The point was that she was right back where she had started. She couldn’t very well call seven hundred eetees by phone and ask whether any of them had left an egg in their motor home.
She closed the white pages and returned to Google, where she wrote “grays” in the search bar. Alongside the pages advertising inflatable gray dolls, artifacts supposedly brought by the grays, women offering sex dressed up as grays, a restaurant specializing in gray cuisine, and every other kind of goofball offer, she found what she was looking for: a page that discussed how the grays reproduce.
According to a marine biologist, the grays did indeed lay eggs - although there were no photos shown - which first grow on the eetee’s back, and which the being’s mate fertilizes by rubbing its own back against them. The biologist also said that the sex of the grays was not fixed but that they alternated roles. An unavoidable image formed in Greta’s head: a gray getting up from the bed of her motor home and leaving the room, an egg falling from its back...
“Greta!” Goyo called.
“What?” she asked without removing her gaze from the monitor.
“Turn on channel 5!”
Greta switched to the video channels. There was an anti-gray demonstration which had blocked off a street - apparently Jujuy Avenue - with demonstrators waving signs and their impassioned faces in front of a squat, untidy building and a sign which could not be read from the camera’s distance. A dark-skinned man with indigenous features commanded the column, shouting, although the disorder was such that the microphone captured only bits and pieces of what he had to say.
It was Jonathan Ortiz, spokesman of one of the most virulent anti-gray groups. Ortiz, the son of Bolivians living in Buenos Aires, had launched his candidacy for the city government a week before, taking advantage of the gray presence as an argument for chasing the ruling party out of power. He was a mostly comic figure, but less so when it was discovered just how healthy that his poll numbers were. Goyo had said that aliens would have to appear before the citizens of Buenos Aires - hard-core racists if ever there was - would elect a Bolita to head their government.
She was about to return to computer mode when the camera angle shifted a little and left her mesmerized, staring at the images. A group of grays had left the building in order to try to reason with the demonstrators. The one in front, trying to speak with Ortiz while Ortiz screamed and sprayed the alien’s face with saliva, was particularly tall. And Greta was certain that it was her gray, the one she was looking for.
She did not want to ask Goyo. She could imagine his derision. To him, all grays looked alike. Instead, she turned to the computer and typed the word “outlander” in the search bar - the official name that had been given to the grays. The fourth entry was that of an association called “Outlanders on Earth”, with an address on Jujuy Avenue. And the director was named KjiriKirst.
Greta’s lot was in Ramos Mejía. It took fifteen minutes to get to Eleventh, and a half hour to travel the remaining eight blocks. The demonstration had closed off Jujuy Avenue just at the peak of rush hour for people exiting their downtown offices. On the FM of her van, she recognized Ortiz’ voice:
“We will not be fooled by those teary eyes again. No sir! You may have convinced our politicians to give you asylum with those crocodile tears, but not us!”
The radio interviewer tried to say something, but Ortíz continued his speech, deaf to his questions:
“You’ve got to wonder why we’re the ones that have to feed and shelter the grays. Why, while the Yankees are stealing all their alien technology and saying that they’re fixing their ship, must we sit by as our country is invaded by hundreds of these space spawn? Maybe it’s not obvious? It’s all about the money, same old story! While our politicians, as usual, line their pockets with unclean money and line our streets with visitors who are not welcome. But this ends here, got that? It ends here...!”
Greta wondered whether they really thought it would be possible to toss them back into space now that they were marooned there. What did they plan to do while their ship was being fixed? Lock them up in one of the space stations and leave them orbiting the planet? And what if the Americans never figured out how to fix their ship?
Three blocks from the mob she gave up and parked the van to continue on foot. She hid the egg carefully among the folds of some overalls and made her way through the crowd. But her initial determination vanished within yards. She was frightened by the rage she saw on the faces of the protesters. What would happen if they discovered that she was holding the child of one of those “space spawn”? Would they think that she was helping them and beat her up? She thought about returning to the van and to her mobile home lot.
A movement inside the egg stopped her flight, but not her fear. What she had here was a child, a living being, from a species that had traveled millions of miles. She could not let a group of vandals standing between her and the entranceway force her to give up.
As she entered the building, there were people screaming in her ear, but the chaos was so great that she could not understand a word. The glass door closed and engulfed her in something resembling calm. It surprised her that no one had blocked her path, but it was obvious that it was only disgust that kept the protesters outside. At least for now.
She was in a wide reception hall, with bean bag chairs and white leather armchairs. A short gray - it did not seem young - approached her.
“May I help you?” it asked, in their usual terse manner.
“I need to see...,” she looked at the rental agreement once more, “KjiriKirst...”
The gray hesitated. Perhaps it was trying to decide whether she was one of the protesters, whether to call KjiriKirst or the police.
“I have something of his,” Greta said, barely lifting the overalls to let the egg show.
“Oh yes,” the gray said and left in a rush.
Excitement and happiness filled Greta. Even the gray’s voice had expressed emotion. Everything was going to work out after all. With the egg handed over, the gray would have its child back and that would be the end of the story...
KjiriKirst appeared, followed by the other gray.
“Yes,” the gray asked and then he seemed to recognize her. “Oh. You.”
Greta thought she could read sadness in his eyes, more than usual, as if he had been crying for his lost child ever since he left her lot. Greta could barely keep from crying herself.
“I have... this... your child,” and she held out the egg.
KjiriKirst took it carefully and unwrapped it quite easily, as if the fabric were not glued but simply tied with a knot that only a grownup - not a child like her - could undo. The gray took the egg between his hands and raised it, then left it on the floor.
“Thank you,” he said. “Is that all?”
Greta looked at him, at the egg on the floor, at the other gray, and once more at KjiriKirst. She could not believe that he would leave it there, as if it were of no importance to him at all, as if he wanted to forget about it again. Maybe the first time hadn’t been an accident after all. However prolific they may be, there was no excuse for such criminal neglect.
“But... it’s your child! Are you going to leave it there, on the floor? You can’t be that careless!”
The two grays looked at each other.
“Child?” Something like a smile appeared on his face, contrasting with his shiny sad eyes. “It’s not my child.”
KjiriKirst stood up and began to walk back to the place from which he had emerged. That son of a bitch was going to leave the egg again!
“It doesn’t matter if it’s yours or your girlfriend’s or boyfriend’s or wife’s or whoever the hell’s it is. You can’t just abandon it here!”
KjiriKirst disappeared, as though totally deaf to her words. The other gray stood watching her, and Greta was about to cry, until her anger boiled over once more.
“And what are you staring at? Don’t you people know how to do anything except play dumb?”
Then KjiriKirst appeared, followed by one of the tiniest grays.
“It’s that kid’s child? Is that what you want me to believe?”
“Not his,” KjiriKirst said, “its.”
And he pointed at the lizard that the little gray had been holding in its arms and that it had just then laid on the floor. The lizard wobbled rapidly on its short legs, running up to the egg, walking around it several times, wrapping it with its body, as if wanting to saturate it with the smell of its own body.
“It’s...,” Greta wanted to avoid the gaze of the three grays, but she had only the lizard and its egg to look at, “that animal’s egg?”
KjiriKirst nodded, a strange gesture coming from a gray.
“All this over a lizard egg?”
“KjiriKirst and I are very grateful.”
Greta nodded and left without saying a word.
She barely noticed the protesters as she left the building and walked the three blocks to her van. As she drove, she felt she could almost sympathize with the anti-grays. After all, they were right. It was not just an invasion of the grays and their offspring. But of their damn pets too.
And worst of all: looking at them, you just wanted to cry.
Hernán Domínguez Nimo
Publicado en inglés en Argentine Science Fiction de St Lawrence University.