by Michael J. Edwards
On the sun-baked ledge outside the window of Joe's office sat a
horned lizard. It stared at him with a steady eye, occasionally
offering a languid blink. Joe had his feet propped up on his desk at an
angle that allowed him to gaze out the window at the scattering of tall
saguaro cactuses, arms held high, wading through a sea of brittlebush
and hedgehog cactus and bursage on their way to the shimmering brown
hills rising from the desert floor some six miles distant. Blue sky
above, brown land below, hot and dry; Joe loved the desert.
He and the lizard had been staring at each other for several minutes
before Joe finally conceded the win to the lizard and slid his feet off
the desk. The clock hanging on the wall opposite him said twenty-five
minutes to four. Twenty-five minutes and another day at the office
would bite the dust. Twenty-five minutes and he would escape this
mind-numbing, soul-sucking job and go home. Until tomorrow, when he
would come back and do it all over again.
"Just quit," his wife told him whenever he brought it up. "Find another job, or retire."
"I wish I could retire," he said, "but I gotta put in a few
more years before we can afford to, and finding another job at my age
isn't gonna be easy. Somehow I gotta stick it out where I am."
Joe had a strategy for sticking it out: Do as little as he could get
away with and coast through the next two or three years. After all,
like most government jobs, it was nearly impossible to get fired from
Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Unless you seriously screwed up,
of course, and Joe religiously avoided situations that looked like they
might lead to a serious screw up.
The phone on his desk rang. He considered the offending instrument.
As a district supervisor, it could be argued that part of his job was
to available when someone needed to talk to him. On the other hand,
pretty much the only calls he got were from the powers-that-be trying
to offload something on him that they didn't want to do themselves, or
when something happened in the field that the field agents didn't want
to take responsibility for. He let it go to voice mail. He would listen
to it in the morning. If it was really important they would call back.
A minute later, the phone rang again. He sighed and picked it up.
"Pickens," he said.
"Joe? Coleman here." Joe frowned. Why would Coleman be calling him?
Coleman had transferred in from the Canadian border as a new team lead,
and Joe had put him in charge of a team that patrolled a section of the
border where nothing ever happened, to let him acclimate before they
threw him into the tough stuff. All his team had to do was drive back
and forth along a dusty dirt road covering a forty-mile stretch of
dusty dirt border, looking for illegal aliens trying to cross over from
Mexico, aliens who hardly ever showed up because it was hot, dry,
rugged country and you had to be crazy to try to make your way into the
US through that stretch of land.
"What's up, Jeremy?"
"Well," he hesitated. "You see ... um--"
"Spit it out, son. I've got stuff to do here before I head home."
That wasn't entirely true. In fact, it wasn't true at all, but it
sounded better than saying he was bored out of his gourd because he
couldn't think of a damn thing that was worth doing.
"Sure. Sorry," said Coleman. "The thing is, we've got some aliens
here demanding to talk to someone in authority." There was a pause. "So
I figured I'd better call you."
Joe couldn't remember any illegal aliens ever making a demand like that, and he had been at this for nearly twenty years.
"Let me see if I have this right," he said. "You called me because
some illegals you found crossing the border out in the middle of
nowhere said they wanted to talk to someone in authority." Joe leaned
back in his chair and rubbed his temple. Homeland Security could save
the taxpayers a butt load of money if they stopped hiring nitwits.
"They got any documentation?" he asked.
"Uh, no. At least nothing we can make sense out of."
"You speak and read Spanish, right?"
"I don't think it's Spanish."
"Son, listen to me carefully," he said. "I know you're new, but
here's how we do it around here: When we catch undocumented aliens
trying to cross the border, we call them illegal aliens and take them into custody. You probably do it the same way up north. Right?"
"Uh, yes sir, but this is kind of an unusual situation. They're not--"
"Just take the damn undocumented aliens into custody and bring them
in," Joe shouted. "We'll figure out the 'unusual' part later." He
slammed the handset down on the phone.
That went rather well, he thought. Coleman had tried to kick the
ball into his court, and he had kicked it right back. Time to take
responsibility, kid. Do your job.
The clock said twenty to four. Joe would be gone by the time Coleman
got here with his illegals; then, it would be Melina Agosti's problem.
He put his feet back on his desk and looked out the window. The lizard
At quarter to four, the phone rang again. Joe closed his eyes and let it ring a couple more times before picking it up.
"Joe. We've got a problem." It was Coleman again. He was short of breath and his voice squeaked.
"What's the problem now?"
It came out in a rush. "Well, they weren't too keen on us taking
them into custody and there was an altercation and then an exchange of
gunfire. At least on our side. I'm not sure what they were using."
Joe's feet dropped off the desk and he sat up. "Did you say gunfire?"
"Hunter and Marsh are dead. Franklin's hurt pretty bad. I got him
into the Humvee and got us the hell out of there. We're on a hill
overlooking them about half a klick away. I figured I'd better stop and
call it in right away."
Joe took off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. This
couldn't be happening. Not on his watch. Not fifteen minutes before the
end of his shift.
"Coleman, if this is some kind of joke, don't bother--"
"This is for real, Joe." The kid sounded scared. "We need some help out here."
Joe's heartbeat was pounding fast and loud in his ears, his
breathing rate had picked up. He mentally ran through the salient
facts: four armed border agents, two dead, one injured. Only a heavily
armed group would try something like that--had to be a narco gang. So
that was the probable situation: A narco gang had crossed the US border
and attacked one of his patrols and he had two men dead and two more in
trouble and it was his job to do something about it.
His stomach churned. This had serious screw-up potential stamped all
over it in big block letters, and Joe knew who the scapegoat would be
when the powers-that-be started looking around for someone to blame.
Out of nowhere, just like that, his career was teetering on the edge.
Dammit, if this wasn't exactly the kind of thing he worked hard to
"How many hostiles?" he snapped.
"We saw three. Marsh got one of them before he went down. I think there are more in the ship."
Joe had to stop and replay that in his head: There are more in the ship.
That couldn't be right. He tried to find a similar-sounding set of
words that made more sense, but couldn't come up with anything.
"Did you say a ship?" he asked.
"Yeah. A big one."
"You're in the middle of the desert. Why would they have a ship in the middle of a desert?"
"Well, it's not exactly that kind of ship."
"Well exactly what kind of ship is it?"
A spaceship. Joe's mental gears ground to a halt while he tried to
absorb that--tried and failed. He couldn't get his mind wrapped around
it; it kept slipping out and slithering away from him. There was some
rustling on the other end, and Joe was vaguely aware that Coleman was
"Joe, a bunch more are coming out of the ship. Hang on."
Joe waited and watched the minute hand on the clock arrive at the
ten-minute mark. Some more time went by but he wasn't sure how much
because the clock had gone out of focus, along with any semblance of
Coleman was back. "I think they're establishing a defensive
perimeter." He paused, and then whistled. "Man, they've got some
serious-looking fire power. At least that's what it look like to me."
Coleman paused, like he was waiting for Joe to say something. Joe couldn't think of anything to say.
"Joe," he said. "I think maybe we've got ourselves an international ... uh ... an interstellar incident here. How do you want to handle it?"
Joe's brain kicked back into gear. The kid wanted him to take
charge, to make a decision, to tell him what to do. Fair enough. He was
the district supervisor, Coleman's direct superior. That was what they
paid him the big bucks for. Well, mediocre bucks anyway, but Joe knew
that this had already escalated into something that no longer had any
good answers, only various flavors of wrong. He was screwed no matter
what he did. He needed to get this off his plate before it got any
The clock showed five minutes to four. Joe blew a breath from between pursed lips and made a decision.
"Coleman," he said. "Stay right where you are. We'll get back to you."
He hung up before Coleman could say anything more, grabbed his
jacket, took a quick look around his office, and walked out into the
hallway where he narrowly avoided a collision with Melina Agosti.
"Hey Joe," she said. "Ready to get out of here?"
"Mel, I am way beyond ready to get out of here."
She grinned. "Anything I should know about?"
Joe thought for a moment. "Yeah. Coleman's team is sitting on something. Wouldn't hurt to give him a call."
"Sure thing, Joe. Have a great night."
"You too, Mel."
Joe left the building, got into his truck, and drove slowly down the
dusty two-lane road. Late afternoon heat radiated visibly off the
blacktop. Maybe he'd stop and pick up some bourbon on the way home.
Yeah, that sounded good. Tomorrow he'd start looking for another job.
Assuming there was a tomorrow.
© 2015 Michael J. Edwards
Bio: Mr. Edwards is a writer of speculative fiction, mostly SF,
and is a native of the Pacific Northwest where he lives with his wife
and two white cats.
E-mail: Michael J. Edwards
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