I tried REALLY hard not to write genre fiction for this one, since I write a lot of genre fiction. I actually came up with something pretty good. But then I decided I didn't like the mood of it, so it has been shelved. Maybe it will come up some other time.
In its place, you get genre fiction.
Mrrt punched a few buttons on the main console of the ship. A video recorder popped up roughly at eye level. “Greetings,” he said to the camera. “I am Mrrt Ssal'tt'rtu of the interstellar transport vessel Ga'rt Lkks'tt 14, registration RS-LO-8827. It looks like I'll be running out of fuel before I can reach the next fuel port, so I'm going to be setting down on one of the planets in the nearby star system. The coordinates should be included in this file, along with the required information regarding my cargo, ship specs, and insurance information. If you might be able to help me, or at least bring me some fuel, I'd be most grateful. Thank you!”
He stopped the recording and played it back to make sure he didn't look too weird on it. Then he sent the file to the signal beacon and detached the beacon from his ship. It would probably be a while before anyone got close enough to get his message, but he had been traveling close enough to recognized interstellar highways that eventually someone had to come through a backwoods place like this, right?
Mrrt changed his trajectory and headed for the nearby star system. Next time, he would be sure to fill up his fuel tank at Alpha Centauri station.
“It's too cold today,” said Kate. “I want to go home.”
“What, little whiny Katie is too much of a girl to handle the cold, eh?” said Walter. He balled up his fists and screwed them under his eyes. “Waah, waah, little baby Katie can't take the cold!”
“I'm not a baby!” Kate stamped a booted foot, then blushed as she realized how childish that must have looked. “But there's nothing interesting out here. It's all just a bunch of trees covered in snow!”
“A little snow never hurt anyone,” said Walter. He scooped some up in his mittened hands and rolled it into a ball. “Hey, Kate! Catch!”
Kate screeched and ducked as the snowball came hurling toward her. It impacted her pink, puffy coat and fell apart. She brushed the snow off and scowled at Walter. “That was mean!”
“Then go back home,” said Walter. “I am going on an adventure. No wussy girls allowed.”
“I'm not a wussy girl!” said Kate, and she scurried after him.
Mrrt rolled his vocal chords in a sound of frustration. He had finished scanning the most promising of the planets. The first one was too hot. The second one was too cold. The third one had the right sort of temperatures, but also seemed to be teeming with sentient life. There were laws and procedures regarding contact with previously unknown intelligent and semi-intelligent beings, and while freight drivers were encouraged and sometimes required to take courses on basic interspecies diplomacy, Mrrt had never been much particularly good with other beings. Even when they weren't giving him weird looks for thinking aloud, they made him feel awkward and out of place.
“But what to do? Nothing else is close enough, and this is the only planet that might have suitable fuel resources.” He tapped on the fuel gauge again. A red light next to it was blinking angrily. At this point, he wasn't even sure he could make it back to his beacon and just try to wait things out. “Just have to find a place with little in the way of civilization and land, I suppose.
He located a region on the sunward side that seemed fairly devoid of life, but neither too cold nor too hot to lack what he was looking for, and plotted his landing course.
“Hurry up!” Walter called over his shoulder.
“I'm coming, I'm coming,” said Kate. The snow was not very deep, but it was fresh and she was having trouble picking her way through it and around the various hibernating plants that it hid. Walter, of course, ran ahead heedless of all obstacles, but she wanted to be sure she wouldn't slip. It wouldn't help things if Walter saw her lose her footing. What if she went sliding back down the slope? He'd probably just laugh at her.
She felt something touch the arm of her jacket and another snowball broke apart with a piff. Walter stood some way ahead of her, grinning.
“The longer you take, the more snowballs I can make!” He bent down and scooped up another handful of snow.
Kate felt her cheeks flush. She stooped down and gathered up her own snowball, but before she could stand up, Walter hit her with another. “You'll pay for that, Walter!” she shouted. He just laughed. She tried to trudge closer to him, determined to hit him. He scooped up more snow, balled it up, and tossed it at her. She screamed and ducked, and this time it missed.
“Ha!” she said in triumph.
She raised her snowball in the air and hurled it at him. It screeched through the air like a rocket. Kate clamped her hands over her ears at the sound and closed her eyes. Then the ground rumbled slightly under her feet. She opened her eyes and peeked at Walter. Bits of her snowball lingered on his hat and cheek, but he wasn't looking at her. Behind him, just over the edge of the slope, a large plume of snow rose in the air and then fell gently back toward the ground.
“What was that?” asked Kate.
“Let's find out!” said Walter, and he dashed over the edge of the slope.
“Hey, wait!” called Kate, and she scurried after him.
“Another successful landing!” Mrrt smiled and patted the console. All systems seemed to be stable and the outer hull and sustained minimal damage. Not bad, considering he almost never landed the ship planet-side. There were docking ports and such for that in most civilized places in the galaxy, and short-range shuttles were far better equipped for frequently leaving and entering planetary atmospheres. But desperate times called for desperate measures.
“Now, to see about finding some fuel.” He flipped the ship's solar power generators on and activated the pressurize seal on his space suit. It would be no good if he lost basic life support as well as fuel. He picked up a hovering hand cart on his way to the airlock, then headed out.
The displays on the inside of his helmet told him the air was cool, but not unreasonably so. It was probably breathable, too, but Mrrt left his helmet on. Rule number one when dealing with foreign atmospheres was to never underestimate the powers of foreign pathogens. Most of the time they were incompatible with alien systems and just made you sneeze a lot, but some would take you down rather violently or lay dormant in your system until you became patient zero for a massive outbreak. This far away from anything that constituted health care, Mrrt didn't want to take the risk. Besides, his worker's compensation plan was unlikely to pay out if his suit reported that he had done something so stupid.
He adjusted the settings on his wrist scanner. Hopefully, there would be some sort of passable fuel supply nearby and he could get on with things. “Let's see, here...” he muttered to himself. “High water content in the surrounding area.... That would be the snow. Good to know it's not poison or ash or anything. Lots of flora... and... two of the sentient life forms nearby?”
He raised his head and looked in the direction his scanner had indicated. A single figure stood there wrapped in some sort of pink garb that obscured its form, and it stared at him with large eyes. “Erm... well, this is awkward,” he said. “Sorry, being. I come in peace. I just need to refuel my ship, and then I'll be out of here.”
The figure said nothing. It just stood stock still. Perhaps it thought he couldn't see it if it didn't move. He took a few deliberate steps toward it. “Look, I know you are there, but I'm really not qualified for first contact, and I can guess you aren't, either. So... let's just pretend this whole thing never happened. You go your way, and I'll go mine, get my fuel, and leave. Now, shoo.”
He waved his hands in a dismissing fashion at the being. It changed its skin color from a pale peach to something much closer to the white of the snow (perhaps trying to activate some sort of camoflauge?) and opened its mouth.
Mrrt tried to cover his ears as a horrific screech emanated from the creature, but of course his suit covered his head, preventing him direct access to his ears. He tried to regain his senses and shut off the audio receptors when something hit the front of his helmet, covering his vision in a field of white.
“Get back, space creature!” shouted Walter. “This is our planet, and you can't have it!”
He stooped down, made another snowball, and threw it at the creature stumbling around before him. It made a few weird noises and stumbled backward from his assault, tripping over some sort of large, hovering platform it had been pushing. “Ha!” he shouted. “Don't mess with Earth! We'll take you down!” He hurled another snowball.
“Let's get out of here, Walter!” shouted Kate.
“No way!” said Walter. “I'm gonna protect the earth! You have to protect it, too! It's your duty, Kate!”
Kate looked doubtfully from the alien to Walter and back. Then she bent down and patted a snowball together. “Go home!” she shouted as she threw it. “Bad alien!”
The creature was trying to hide behind its platform, but the thing offered very little cover. It bent down over itself and made more strange sounds.
“What's it doing?” asked Kate.
“It's probably trying to blow us up!” said Walter. He dove over the platform and tackled the alien. “I won't let you blow up Earth, you monster!”
“Gereeee nmmrr monster, please tt'mmlekk n'mag!” said the alien.
“It sounds like it's trying to say something,” said Kate.
The alien pulled itself free of Walter long enough to look at her with its large, dark eyes. “Yes! I just d'teree mm rkh translator. Please, don't sl'a rmteet!”
Walter tackled it again.
“Get off of him, Walter!” She grabbed Walter by the arm and pulled him back from the alien. The alien scuttled to its feet and took several very hasty steps backward. It made a sound that could conceivably be clearing its throat and lifted its arm.
“Could you say something, please?” said Mrrt. “My translator is almost done calibrating.”
“I was just trying to protect you...” muttered the blue-garbed figure. “And Earth. We don't want an alien invasion.”
“That will do,” said Mrrt. The translator on his wrist scanner seemed to have completed its analysis of the native language. He switched it off. “Let me know if you can't understand me. This program is pretty good, but weird things always come up with new species.”
“We're called humans, alien,” said the blue figure, “and we don't like being abducted or invaded.”
“What?” They thought he was an invader? “That's absurd! Invaders wear all this tactical gear and stuff! And I'm not some sort of weird slaver or pervert that goes around abducting sentient beings for my own ends. That's just crazy.”
The pink figure peeked around the other one. “Then why are you here?” it asked.
“I ran out of fuel. I was hoping I could find some.”
“There's a gas station back in town,” muttered the blue figure.
“I don't think his ship takes gas,” the pink figure said.
Mrrt smiled. “You're right. It's powered by biological material allowed to degenerate to fermentation using natural processes.”
The figures stared at him. The pink one was starting to look like it might make that terrible noise again.
“Wait, wait, wait. Not... beings like you and I. I mean, I guess you could if you wanted to but... no, forget I said that. I mean like rotting plants.”
“I have some grapes in my pocket....” said the pink figure.
She pulled a small, clear wrapping of some sort out and held it in front of her. He slowly took a few steps forward and looked it over. Several green spheres attached to a branching stem. He scanned them, then frowned and handed the bag back. “Thank you, but I don't think these will quite work. Maybe after they underwent an extensive treatment process, but if I wait long enough for that, my shipment will be late. What else do you have around here? I'm Mrrt, by the way.”
“Just snow and stuff, mostly,” the blue figure said, and it gave the powdery ground a well-aimed kick.
“I'm Kate, and this is Walter,” said the other figure. “Maybe we could find something for you at the grocery store?”
“No way!” said Walter. He pushed his way in front of Kate. “We aren't helping you unless you're gonna give us something.”
“Well, of course I'll pay you if you feel it's necessary,” said Mrrt. “I wouldn't want to steal anything. But I'm not sure what to give you. I don't figure you take galactic standard currency.”
“Do you have a ray gun?” said Walter.
“A ray gun.” He pulled off a layer of cloth from his hands, and Mrrt briefly wondered how they were able to get anything done with so few digits. Walter folded them together with the forefingers extended toward Mrrt. He made an odd sound with his mouth that didn't translate and rapidly pulled his hands back. “Or really, any sort of space gun. That would be really cool.”
“Guns are not cool, Walter,” said Kate. “We don't need a ray gun.”
“Guns are totally cool! Especially space guns!”
“No, they aren't! They're dangerous! And what do you know about space guns, anyway?”
“I know that they're cool. Unlike you.”
Mrrt watched the back and forth, perplexed. He was beginning to wonder if these particular individuals were bonded. He decided not to interfere. Instead, he turned back to his wrist scanner and started scanning again for fuel. “Let's see.... Flora, but not suitable flora. Some creatures of varying sizes within the flora. Ooh, some are even capable of flight. And... something very large moving over to the east....”
He looked over in that direction. A golden brown creature of considerable size had lumbered out of the trees. It raised its massive head and sniffed the air, then let out a chuffing noise and began moving toward them. Mrrt shuffled a bit. The creature watched. Kate and Walter were still arguing. The creature was getting closer. “Um... excuse me,” said Mrrt. Kate and Walter turned toward him. “Maybe this is a stupid question, but... that creature over there, is it safe?”
Kate turned in the direction Mort was pointing and felt the color drain out of her face. Behind them stood a huge grizzly bear. “Walter?” she said. “I changed my mind. I want a ray gun.”
Walter looked at the bear. Slowly, he bent down to scoop up another snowball, but Kate grabbed his arm. “Don't move,” she said. “Maybe it doesn't see us.”
The bear waved its head from one side to the other, then it took a few more lumbering steps in their direction.
“Walter, we're going to die,” said Kate.
“How fast can it move?” said Mort. “Can we get to safety?”
“The town's too far away,” squeaked Kate.
“I'm not afraid of it,” said Walter, but Kate noticed he had gone as stiff as she was.
“Oh, I'm going to regret this,” said Mort. Kate peeked over her shoulder. Did Mort have a ray gun after all? But he was tapping at the wrist of his space suit. There was a noise off to their right, and a panel slid open on the ship. “Quick, everyone get aboard,” he said.
Kate didn't need to be told twice. Apparently, neither did Walter. They all dashed into the ship. Mort hit a button on the wall and the door slid closed with a heavy thunk. “What was that thing?” said Mort.
“It was just a little bear,” said Walter. “I bet we could have taken it out if we had a ray gun.”
“It was not just a 'little bear!'” shouted Kate. “It was a grizzly bear! Even a ray gun might not have taken it-- eek!”
Some sort of liquid was pouring out of spouts on the ceiling of the ship. Kate ducked her head underneath her arms. “What is this, Mort?”
“Don't worry,” said Mort. “It's just the decontamination sprinklers. It's standard procedure and an automated system. It will stop in a minute.”
“We're getting all wet!”
“That's kind of the idea.”
“But it's freezing outside!”
Mort shook his head and sighed. “And I don't suppose your suits have internal body temperature regulators, do they?”
“Internal what?” said Kate.
“I knew I was going to regret this,” said Mort, “though I didn't expect to regret it so soon."
The sprinklers stopped presently, and Mrrt directed them to the heat decontamination coils to speed up the drying process. They were still far to dirty to allow on his ship, but at least they wouldn't be uncomfortable.
“So, what do we do now?” asked Kate.
Mrrt tapped his wrist scanner into the ship's systems. “I should be able to monitor this... bear from inside here. When it goes away, we can head out.”
Walter was giving him an odd look that did nothing to assuage Mrrt's feelings of regret.
“I dunno,” said Walter. “Grizzly bears can be very persistent.” He tucked his hands behind his head and leaned against the wall. “We might be here for a while, Mr. Alien.”
“No, it looks like it has already wandered off,” said Mrrt. “I guess it wasn't interested in us, after all.”
“Well, they usually eat fish, I think,” said Kate, “but they're still very dangerous.”
“I see,” said Mrrt, though he wasn't entirely sure he did. “Are you two dry enough now?”
“I think so,” said Kate.
“Good. Then let's get going back outside.” He checked the scanner again to make sure there were no other large creatures around, then opened the door. “The sooner I find fuel, the sooner I can be out of your way.”
“Not so fast,” said Walter. “How do we know you're a good alien? What's this ship for if it's not for invading planets?”
“Oh, I'm a freighter,” said Mrrt. “My current load is very important to my client. They don't like the cold much, though, which is why I decided to land here. That way even if my ship malfunctions, they should stay asleep.”
“They?” said Kate, activating her snow camouflage again.
Mrrt lifted up his wrist and pulled up an image, then held it so Kate could see. “My people call them allr'mtae. They're small, bi-winged creatures that help with pollination on some planets, though I hear in some places they're also....”
“Butterflies!” interrupted Kate, clapping her hands together. “Can we see them?”
“Absolutely not,” said Mrrt. “As I said, they are very important cargo. I have to deliver them to....”
“But they're so pretty! They look like those tropical ones you see in the magazines.”
“You have these here?”
“Well, not here-here, and they don't do so well in the winter, but in summer we have monarchs and stuff. They look like these, but their wings are black with orange spots.”
“Then your planet is very lucky. These... butterflies... are a bit of a rarity among populated planets.”
“Oh? That's kind of sad,” said Kate.
“Who cares about butterflies?” said Walter. “I hope you don't expect us to help you find more if yours die. 'Cause we won't.”
“No, no,” said Mrrt. “There are procedures and precautions to be taken before removing a species from its homeworld, and that's not my job. I just ship the things.”
“If we help you,” said Kate, “can we see them?”
“But I thought you had them on this planet.”
“But I want to see these ones,” said Kate. “I love butterflies.”
“You would need to go through an extensive decontamination process to enter my ship, and you cannot touch them! Only look. If you have them here, then surely you know how fragile they are.”
“I'll do it,” said Kate. “I promise. As soon as we find you some fuel.” She turned and headed back in the direction Mrrt had first seen them.
“But what about my ray gun?” said Walter. He took a few steps after Kate, then turned back to Mrrt and raised a hand. “I better get my ray gun.”
“If I can figure out what that is, we'll talk,” said Mrrt.
“Common, Walter!” called Kate. “You better come, too, Mort, since we don't know what you're looking for.”
“Very well,” said Mrrt, and he fell into step behind them. “Let's just try and keep it subtle, shall we? I don't want to cause alarm.”
“Oh, we'll keep it subtle,” said Walter. He ducked behind some nearby bushes, then peeked out and ran to a nearby tree. “Let's go, Kate! We're on Top Secret Mission Project: Get Mort Gas.”
“That sounds disgusting, Walter,” said Kate. “Let's just go.”
Mrrt looked back at his space ship and wondered again if this was the best idea, and then he followed after.