Close Encounters 5

As Aurel prepared dinner — what he modestly claimed was simple fare, but seemed like a feast to me — I asked him why he ate Earthan food, rather than his own planet’s.

“But why would I not eat Earthan foods?” he countered. “I have tried foods from all different areas of Vanzato, but they are very similar to each other — especially compared to the Earthan things available here. Your vegetables, fruits, and even meats are exotic! And your spices are amazing!” He inhaled, a blissful smile curving his lips. “I enjoy how my house smells now. When I first came, it was new and smelled empty. But as I found spices at the stores and tried them, those scents have filled these rooms. And there are so many different flavors! There are not even words in my language to describe some of the flavors that I have found.”

At the moment he was frying pork chops coated in a paste of yogurt, dijon mustard, pureed garlic, and lemon juice. A pan of thin-sliced potatoes layered in cheese and sprinkled liberally with herbs (he had made sure that I liked all of them before grinding them into a fragrant powder) was bubbling and browning in the oven. He was also roasting some bell peppers, onion slivers, and smaller tomatoes sliced into halves, which I’d helped prepare. Everything smelled delicious, and the aromas filled the spacious rooms, just like he said.

“I guess I’m not adventurous when it comes to food,” I admitted, watching with rapt attention as Aurel’s slender fingers prepared some fruit for dessert — noticing, for the first time, that he had no fingernails. “I’ve never tried Vanzatoan food, although they have some at the café.”

“Which café do you mean?” he asked, looking up and taking my breath away with his amazing eyes. He looked back down quickly, depriving me of his eyes but rewarding me with a light blush in his cheeks.

“The Ferrule — that’s where I usually go to eat. I don’t know how good their Vanzatoan food is, but I can tell you that their Earthan food doesn’t smell half as good as this!”

“At another time, I will make for you a true Vanzatoan meal,” he said, flipping over the pork chops. “Even though I enjoy trying Earthan recipes, there are still some Vanzatoan dishes that I… crave, sometimes…”

I was thrilled to know that Aurel was not only planning on seeing me again, but also cooking for me! But there was a note in his melodic voice that seemed wistful, maybe even homesick.

“Do you miss your family?” I asked, hoping I wasn’t being too intrusive. He nodded, with a wan smile.

“Yes, of course. Even though we transmit messages almost every day, it takes at least five days for my message to get there, and another five days for an answer to come back.”

“Yeah… It’s about the same with Earth. You must have better communications technology if it only takes five days, though, since Vanzato is over twice as far away! How long does it take to actually travel there?”

“About twenty-five days on Vanzato, which would be… over twenty-seven days here on Ixion.”

He pulled on a pair of oven mitts (a different pair from what I’d used earlier) to get the potatoes out, then put the pork chops on two plates, adding lemon zest (which he knew I wouldn’t care for) on his own and paprika on both. I put the roasted vegetables in a bowl and set it out on the table, and when I turned around Aurel was kneeling on the floor, rummaging in a cupboard.

“Do you like wine with your meal?” he asked over his shoulder. “I do not know all of the different varieties, since I only use them in cooking. Vanzatoans do not have the… enzymes, necessary to digest alcohol, so I cannot drink wine, but if there is anything in here that you would like…”

I peered into the cupboard, trying hard to ignore the slender curve of his back.

“Thanks, but these are all cooking wines. Water will be fine, really — the feast is the food!”

I almost offered him my hand to help him up, and caught myself just in time. Not that he would have taken it, after the shock it had given him the last time! He smiled apologetically (although I was the one who’d hurt him) and set out a pair of wineglasses for me to fill with water as he poured some sort of cream on the fruit, then put the dessert in the refrigerator to chill.

When we sat down to eat, my nostrils twitching in anticipation, I felt like the occasion called for a toast and raised my glass of water to my beautiful host.

“To you, Aurel! For being so kind, and gracious… and to whatever makes my brain waves more audible to you than other Earthans’. It was embarrassing at first, but I’m glad for it, since it brought us together.”

He blushed, but nodded as he raised his glass, too.

“Yes, to whatever caused us to meet now, and on this planet so far from both of our homes. And… to your Earthan culture. May each of our species learn the best of the other, and in so doing, grow in intellect and understanding.”

“Hear, hear!” I agreed full-heartedly. Then I took a bite of the pork chop, and almost dropped my fork and knife. “MMM! MMM! Dish is sho good!

Aurel smiled around his dainty mouthful, but waited until after he’d swallowed to respond.

“It did turn out rather well… I have tried this recipe before, but this time, I added more mustard. How do you like the potato dish?”

“Excellent,” I told him, having already downed a bite of it. “Aurel, you’re an amazing cook!”

“I only prepare them according to the instructions on the Net,” he said demurely. “There are so many recipes — so many different combinations, even for the same thing. I will never be able to try them all!”

“Well, if you ever need a guinea pig — a test subject — for your cooking, I would be more than happy to assist you! Mmm, these veggies…” I moaned, overcome by the flavors.

We didn’t say much in the way of conversation until every last morsel had been polished off, including the wonderful fruit-and-cream dessert. But as our delicious dinner came to an end and we sat there, contentedly sipping our water, I marveled again at the strangeness of meeting someone like Aurel. That he was a mind-reader was amazing enough; that he could read my mind more clearly than anyone else’s was an inexplicable mystery; but that he should be willing to invite me into his home (after all the lascivious thoughts he’d seen in my dirty mind) and even let me stay for dinner… was astounding. Was it because he was so isolated, and no doubt lonely, that he’d decided to take a chance on getting acquainted with me?

“I suppose… that was a part of it,” he mused, startling me again with the realization that, yes indeed, he could read my mind. “I am sorry, I cannot help it. If there were a way to stop it, to turn off my ability, I would have done so a long time ago. But not even our best scientists know enough about the… phenomenon, to make that possible.”

“It’s okay,” I assured him. “It just takes some getting used to.”

He took another sip of water before continuing, “Even when I was on Vanzato, I did feel alone… except when I was with Liumi, my sister. We understood each other perfectly, because we can both read what is in the other’s heart — like I can read your thoughts, Jun. We could communicate faster than spoken words! It was the hardest part of leaving Vanzato to come here, and I think… I wanted to become acquainted with you, because you reminded me of my sister.”

I guessed that he meant the whole mind-speak thing, not the part about my undressing him in my mind and fantasizing about sexing him. He replied with a smile before I could even attempt to censor that thought.

“Yes, of course! I can hear your thoughts as clearly as Liumi’s, which is extremely unusual. I wish I had the instruments our scientists use to measure brainwaves, so that I could see if yours are similar to Liumi’s and mine… but understanding it will not change the fact that it happens. And I am very glad for it, Jun. I hope that it does not bother you, because this is a great opportunity for me to learn more about your species, and about you.”

I blushed at what he might think of our primitive species, but remembered how understanding he’d already been — and really, he’d seen/heard me at my worst, so it couldn’t get any worse than that! But there was a question nagging at the back of my mind (which maybe he couldn’t sense yet) from the moment he’d mentioned his sister.

“Why did you come to Ixion, Aurel?” I asked. “If it’s so hard to be separated from your sister and family, what made you decide to do it?”

“Oh… There were many factors that influenced my decision,” he responded, somewhat introspectively. “The first was that I wanted to learn about your culture, to be exposed to Earthans, but I was not… courageous enough, to go and live on Earth. Here, at least, there are quite a few Vanzatoans if I want to be with my own species. Plus, the population — of both species — is not so crowded. I have trouble sleeping when there are other people close by, since I can hear their thoughts. I chose this house because the three houses around it are owned by Merenians, and their thoughts are easier to ignore.”

“Really?” I asked, surprised at this little tid-bit of information.

“Well, actually… they don’t think much,” Aurel explained, then hastened to add, “not that they are less intelligent, of course — they are simply… more reactive. They have no emotions, so once a situation arises and they have dealt with it, it is no longer an issue for them. There are long periods of time between special occurrences when they purely exist. It is very peaceful to have them as my closest neighbors.”

“Sounds very Zen,” I agreed, then saw the puzzled look on his beautiful face. “Zen is a… it’s a philosophy that was developed in my country on Earth, many centuries ago. I can’t really explain it — not well, anyway — but it’s got a lot to do with finding inner peace. Like, rising above the ocean of everyday life to float like an empty vessel, rather than getting dragged down by the weight of it. If that makes sense…”

“Yes… I can understand it better from what you are feeling about it,” he said, his eyes half-closed. “It is… fascinating. I would like to study it more.”

“You should go to the Net for that,” I conceded. “I’ve never studied it formally.”

“I will,” he said with determination. “In your mind, I saw men dressed in black, sitting on a… what was that? A wooden floor, with no wall in front of them…”

“A porch, at a Zen monastery. They sit there for hours, meditating to find peace and focus.”

I was startled to realize how very clearly he could read my mind, and even see what I saw in my mind’s eye, but that sure made it easier to explain what I meant.

“I would like to try that,” Aurel murmured contemplatively. “The mental discipline might help me find peace in my own mind, even when I am near a lot of people and feel like I am drowning in their thoughts… You see, Jun, that was the other reason I decided to come to Ixion. Since there are so few people here, I would not often be in a large group. On Vanzato, I was expected to go to certain events where there were many people, and I would become very tired.”

“That sounds rough,” I sympathized, trying to imagine what it would be like — maybe a noisy cocktail party, only where everyone was shouting.

“Yes, something similar to that. Liumi is better at ignoring it, but I have always found it difficult to have a conversation when I can hear a person’s thoughts louder than what someone else is saying with their voice.”

“That would be annoying,” I said in awe. His gift, or curse, was certainly powerful!

“Here on Ixion, I do not have to attend such events, and even when I go to the store, I can choose to go when few people are there. It is very convenient,” Aurel told me. “I must go to my father’s company once every week, and even then, I only need to meet with a few people. It has been very peaceful and relaxing for me.”

“Your father has a company here?”

“Yes. My… ancestor, established the trading outpost here, with the Merenians,” he explained, and it started to make more sense to me why he’d come. “My father wanted someone to oversee the business, and to make decisions, if necessary, on his behalf. When I showed an interest in Earthan culture, he asked me if I would consider doing this. He also thought it would be useful to have someone like me who could read thoughts, in case…” He paused, suddenly uncomfortable, but finished his sentence anyway. “In case some of the Earthans we are trading with are not… completely honest.”

“That’s a good call,” I assured him. “Earthans are notorious for being devious, even amongst ourselves. Your father is a smart man. Plus, he had you, the perfect person for the job!”

Aurel smiled in relief as he nodded.

“Yes, and nobody outside of my family knows of my ability — or of Liumi’s — so if I ever sense that one of our… employees, is not happy, I can try to correct the problem before it becomes very bad.”

“I see. It makes sense that you came here, then. But wait — what about your art?”

“That is something that I do because I enjoy it. I worked as an artist on Vanzato, but I am happy to help with my father’s business, too, while I am here. I would not be able to afford to live here on Ixion without the… stipend, that my father pays me.”

I grinned and remarked, “Well, yeah! Sounds like a perfect setup. And it’s nice for your dad, too, that he has someone he can trust looking out for his company.”

“Yes,” he smiled, and I became lost in the shining depths of his pale purple eyes. He blushed, glancing down at the table where he rolled the stem of his wineglass between his delicate fingers. I gazed at his lily-white skin, too, and realized what an apt descriptor that was — his fingers were just like the petals of a flower!

“You think the most beautiful things about me,” he sighed, the color on his cheeks deepening. “After we met, that first time… I searched on the Net for photographs of the flower you thought… well, of which I reminded you.”

“Wisteria?” I asked, and he nodded. “Did you find any good ones?”

“Oh, yes! They are very beautiful!” he replied. “But I think… you are too… generous. The flowers… they are much brighter in color than I am. Maybe when seen from a distance, they can seem gray, but they are much more beautiful than I.”

“Aurel, you have to stop thinking like that! Or try, anyway,” I amended, not wanting to be too demanding. “You are beautiful and lovely, just as you are! And yeah, when you step back to look at the whole tree blooming, the colors of the individual flowers blend together to look exactly like your hair! Even the way it moves in the wind is like wisteria flowers… and I’m the fat, furry bumblebee that comes buzzing around, looking for something to eat!”

We both laughed at that, Aurel’s bell-like tones and my deeper ones echoing off of the walls. I helped him put the dishes in the washer, taking care to not touch him or get too close, and realized with regret that our sun, 51 Pegasi, was hanging low in the western horizon. It was time I said goodbye to my wonderful Vanzatoan host — and friend, I dared to hope — to go home to my own apartment.

“Oh! Must you?” Aurel asked, startling me once again with his ability to read my mind. But the greater surprise, this time, was that he seemed disappointed, too.

“Well, I mean, I’d hate to overstay my welcome…” I mumbled in reply.

“I was hoping that… you could stay tonight. Most Earthans do not work for two days out of every seven…”

“Oh! Well, yeah, tomorrow’s Sunday, and I don’t have to work until Monday…” My voice trailed off as the import of his words sank in. “You mean… you really want me to stay?”

“I… Yes,” Aurel answered, blushing and then turning pale. “That is… I cannot… You must understand, it would still be too much for my sensory receptors…”

Catching his drift, I hastened to assure him, “Oh, no! I mean, yeah, I understand, of course! You just meant… to talk, and… get to know each other better, right?”

“Yes! Exactly,” he said, breathing a little sigh of relief.

“I would really like that. In fact, it would be an honor,” I told him, glad to know that he could sense the sincerity of my verbal statement. But then I remembered what we’d done earlier in the day, during our nap, and I suddenly felt rather gross and dirty — not because of what had happened in that dream (or whatever that had been) but because I hadn’t showered since the night before, when I’d left work.

“Um… Would it be all right if I went home and got cleaned up? I don’t have any change of clothes, either…”

“Of course! I am sorry that I did not think to offer you the use of my shower! But I have no clothing that you could wear, so perhaps that would be best. I will take you in my hover-pod.”

I was somewhat caught off-guard to know that he had one of those expensive devices, and it took me a moment to figure out why: I’d met him the first time on the public hover-bus. Why would he take a hover-bus if he had a pod of his own?

“I do not use it unless I cannot find a convenient hover-bus. It is wasteful to use the pod for only myself when the hover-buses are running anyway.”

I had to smile at his very practical explanation, then realized that he was looking puzzled by my response.

“Most Earthans would use their hover-pod just to show it off, even though it’s wasteful,” I explained.

“But that is… illogical,” Aurel pointed out, mystified.

“I know, but that’s how Earthans think. If they’re rich, they want other people to know it.”

Aurel shook his head and remarked, “There is much more that I must learn about Earthan culture!” before leading me into the garage where his pod — a sleek silver one — was stored.

“Nice,” I breathed, seeing our reflection in the shiny paint finish.

“It was a gift from my father,” Aurel said as he slipped inside. I sat down across from him and told the computer my apartment’s grid location. I couldn’t even feel when the pod began moving, floating on pressurized air as it slid out onto the street.

“Your technology is really impressive,” I told him, watching the buildings flash by. “I hope ours can catch up soon!”

His expression was thoughtful as he observed me. “You enjoy working with machines, do you not? Even now, I can tell that you are wondering what makes this pod ride so smoothly and quietly. It is… an obsession, for you — much like my art is for me.”

“I guess you could say that,” I replied, after considering his statement. “I’ve always wanted to be an engineer. I like knowing how things work.”

“Yes… you are curious. My sister, Liumi, is also curious.” Aurel had a faraway look in his eyes as he said that, but the next moment we had arrived at my apartment.

“Um… Would you like to come in?” I asked, a bit hesitant because I hadn’t cleaned it in some time. “It won’t take me long to get washed up… but I can always catch the next hover-bus back to your place…”

“Oh, no! I do not mind waiting at all. And I do not expect you to clean it frequently, since you do not work at home like I do,” Aurel answered to my unspoken question. “But I am… very curious, to see what a true Earthan home looks like.”

“Well, it’s only an apartment,” I warned him, leading the way in. I was relieved to see that it wasn’t in as bad a condition as it sometimes got. “Please, make yourself at home! I’ll just be a few minutes…”

I didn’t have my bedroom door set to close unless I told it to, so I could hear Aurel opening my kitchen cupboards and the refrigerator while I rummaged for some clean clothes.

“Jun,” he called to me from down the hall, “you do not have any real food in here! I had thought, when I heard you thinking how long it had been since you had bought fresh vegetables, that you were… exaggerating. Now I see that you do not cook at all!”

“Guilty!” I hollered back at him with a laugh, then jumped into the bathroom and into the shower. It was refreshing to wash myself clean again, especially after everything that had happened since I’d left work last night (although the memory of sexing Myrna had faded into oblivion compared to the hand job that Aurel had given me). Once dried, I put on a clean pair of jeans and my faded-but-comfy flannel shirt before walking out to the living room. There I stopped dead in my tracks, my mouth hanging open in horror and mortification.

Aurel was replaying the last 3D projection I’d watched. It was, naturally, porn.

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