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   e a r t h

--- P E T E R   R O C K

I turned off highway 375, toward the only structures still standing in that part of Nevada. Unlit neon beer signs filled the windows of the largest trailer; by the door, it said LITTLE A'LE'INN-Earthlings Welcome. I saw no movement, no one else aro und, just a few smaller trailers behind this one. The desert spread out everywhere and the sun shone so it looked to be a hundred degrees when it was more like fifty.

The rubber doormat said WELCOME U.F.O.'s and CREWS, with a green spaceman holding up his arms. Tendrils rose from his head, like those on a Sea Monkey. I opened the door.

Hello, a woman said. She was hunched over, perhaps four feet tall, with gray hair. Hungry? she said.

Yes, I said. I took the menu she held out, then sat down at the bar. All around me, on the walls, were drawings and photos of flying saucers; grim-faced men held up jagged pieces of metal, evidence; maps had been pierced by red pins which marked important sites. Down the bar, two clay heads rested, a little larger than mine, with huge slanted eyes. Aliens. A bookshelf held titles such as ABDUCTION REMEMBERED and UNPROVEN "HOAXES," mixed in with anti-government tracts and pamphlets from the National Rifle Association. The low ceiling was stained with nicotine; smoke hung in the air, lingering from some past time. the woman said.

What? I said. No. Just driving.

Right, she said. Whatever.

I ordered a beer and an Alien Burger. As I waited, I considered what I'd heard about alien abduction, how common it is. It explains the phenomenon of lost time, hours that cannot be recalled. That had always seemed a little convenient to me.

As my food arrived, the door swung open, and a man and woman entered. Locals, I surmised by their greeting. Both wore baseball hats, brims pulled low; the woman was heavy, in a hooded sweatshirt over a green dress, and the man's moustache hid his mouth. T hey sat down the bar from me.

What are you doing? he said.

I didn't see the words coming.

He's, the gray-haired waitress said.

No, I said. I'm not. Why it was important to have them believe this half-lie, I don't know.

Sick last night, the second woman said. Been coughing up this black stuff since the ten o'clock news.

No one else seemed to find this suspicious. I did not say a thing, just read a clipping on the wall. I felt the man watching me. The article concerned crop circles and their similarity to Mayan mosaics.

Maybe, he said, you're here to study the people, to actually check us out, see what we're about.

I was just driving by, I said, though he was partially right.

Why don't you just ask us if we believe? he said.

Believe what? I said.

You don't want to play, the man said, you don't have to play.

My dishonesty ashamed me a little, I admit; perhaps if I had known myself better I would have been able to own up, to watch them, to stay and talk and really find out.

Anything else? the waitress said.

Yes, I said. I'd like a room for the night.

Whoo! the man said. Now you're tempting fate!

The waitress pointed to a line of six keys on the wall. Every room was vacant.

Any preference? she said, then took the second one before I could answer. The televisions get no reception, she said. But we got videos.

She opened a door into a large closet and I stepped inside. All the videos were about U.F.O.s-documentaries, morning news shows, nothing purporting to be anything less than fact. Selecting a few, I nodded to the man, the two women, then went out the back door.

Just driving by, I heard the man say, followed by laughter through the windows' screens.

Three trailers, each holding two rooms, were spread out behind the larger one; from where I stood, I could see the 2 on the door of the nearest trailer. Across the highway, mining equipment had been abandoned-rusted turbines tall as houses, long rusted pi pes full of tumbleweeds and jackrabbits, and trucks resting on their roofs, upside down, as if bodies, skeletons, might still be inside. Further out in the desert, where the land rose, Joshua trees clustered, waving their arms.

Earlier that afternoon, I had driven up there, on the old mining roads, seeking the signs which marked the secret military base; I expected armed patrols to intercept me. Not watching the road, I put my truck's back wheels into a ditch, and had to climb o ut to look for something that would improve my traction. No one, terrestrial or otherwise, came to help me. At last, I found a mine shaft, and I took broken timber from its mouth. I dropped a pebble and didn't hear it hit bottom; the next one I heard, tho ugh it may have merely rattled against the sides, down through the darkness. I stood then and saw the cluster of trailers below, five miles away, where I would find myself standing three hours later.

The door to my room was unlocked. I looked inside, then went for my things in the truck. My room took up half the trailer, which did not feel like a building, nor a vehicle, nor like being outside. I took a shower, worrying about how the splashing water d eafened me; I sporadically turned it off, to check for sounds.

Dressed, I sat on the bed and considered the videotapes. As one rewound, I began to wonder if the other half of the trailer, the other room, was also unlocked. I went back outside, around the trailer, and turned the knob of the door marked 1.

This room was a mirror image of mine, just the same, only perfectly backward. It seemed set up for me, if only I was left-handed, my hair swirling the other direction, my belt and buttons all fastened backward, the hands of my watch going counter-clockwis e, and my thoughts, too, spinning, following their own chains back through time.

The video I watched was about a scientist who had worked on the secret base, Area 51, so close to where I was in the Nevada desert. It claimed that an alien craft had crashed somewhere in New Mexico, and that pieces of this machine-along with aliens, dead and possibly alive-had been brought to Nevada for study and experimentation.

I kept muting the television's volume, to check if there was any sound. There were no noises at all; there was not even any wind. I am not sure what I feared. I certainly considered the possibility that anyone with a truck could come in off the highway, h itch up, and pull me wherever they wanted.

The scientist on the video explained what had been learned from the alien crafts-new kinds of propulsion which allowed vertical as well as horizontal flight, immediate stops and starts. Hearing something, I turned off the television. No other lights were on in the room, and then a beam came in through the window and slid along the wall above me. I dropped low, beside the bed. As I crawled for the door, I heard the gravel outside being crushed under something heavy.

At first, outside, everything seemed the same. Darker, yet still desolate. Then a light shone again, illuminating two green figures-they were aliens, holding beer cans, part of an advertisement nailed to the side of a trailer. The lights were headlights; a truck pulled around, aiming them at me. A door opened, and the driver climbed out, twenty feet away. He stepped around the front of the lights, so his face was in shadow. At the same time I lifted my right hand to wave, to show I was no threat, he raise d his left hand.

You sure look familiar, he said.

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