The assignment was pure revenge on Eddie's part, just because I won a couple bucks from him at the weekly after-hours card game in the bar next door to the newspaper.
And to rub it in as I was going out the newsroom door, he snarled cheerfully, "The tip on the story came from General Murfee, so be extra nice to him."
I slammed the door angrily and stomped out to my car. We reporters all hated General Murfee, the head of our local militia.
On my way out of town, I passed Murfee's Miracle Mile, Your Auto Heaven On Earth. The car business bought his nice uniforms, probably even the shiny medals decorating the front of them, and a ton of tickets to legislators' fundraisers, because The Murf was always hanging around with those well-tailored suits.
His so-called militia got lots of heavy hardware from the government but I noticed as I passed the Auto Heaven parking lot, most of the olive drab stuff was gone - probably out warring with the meteor. Good. Maybe Murf would be vaporized by the time I got there.
Finally, I arrived at the gas-station-plus-diner that was Crossland Corners. A very young guy in a baggy olive drab Murfee militia suit stood stiffly at the crossroads, yelling "Halt!"
I halted, since the kid gripped tightly in both hands what looked to me like a missile launcher. Shifting the deadly device to one hand and a shoulder, he flagged me down.
"You can't go out Route 24," he squeaked earnestly. "That's where the meteor landed. General Murfee closed the area."
I sighed, "Look, I'm from the Times. I'm here to do the story." Or, I thought, actually, the non-story. Eddie hates off- trail stuff like meteor stories. He will never use it.
"Well, I don't know," the kid hesitated, rubbing his beardless chin.
"I'll interview the general," I promised, faithlessly.
"Oh, okay," the kid said, as his brow unfurrowed and he waved me past.
A mile down the road, I could see where the contents of Murf's Miracle Mile parking lot had gone. The mini-tank was there, as was the humvee and an assortment of jeeps. Despite the daylight, some of Murfee's Minions had the searchlight truck trained on what was once a field of adolescent wheat, now well trampled and surrounded by yellow plastic tape strung on a series of unpainted wooden sawhorses.
A blackened hole, about the size of a compact car, marked the approximate center of the field. Some kind of dark, shapeless hulk protruded from it - the meteor, no doubt. I stepped over the tape to get a better look, but one of one of Murfee's militia kids grabbed my arm. I've seen him washing cars at the dealership - but now he waved a rifle.
"You can't go in there," he piped. "I'm press, kid. I'm here for the story," I said, noting with horror how the B-movie words flowed effortlessly from my lips. I really do spend too much time watching the sci-fi channel.
"Um, um, I gotta see your, ah, credentials," the kid said.
While fumbling in my pockets for my press card, which I last used for an iced-tea coaster while visiting my Aunt Mildred, I heard a familiar bellow.
"Didn't you hear the man? This area is cordoned off!" The nasal bawl of General Murfee himself assailed my ear.
"Hiya, General," I said. "Nice afternoon. How are things? How's the meteor?"
The portly form of General Murfee heaved itself into view from behind the humvee. He was followed by a small claque of olive-drab clad kids. His medals rattled as he moved, and some people said he wore them on his pajamas at night. The girls who said it might not be Sunday School teachers, but why would they lie about Murf's medals?
Murfee came over and growled, "Oh, yeah. The Times. Where's your photographer? Hafta ask you to get back on this side of the tape. Could be dangerous, ya know."
"Our photographer was...on assignment," I improvised, "and --"
"That's okay," the Murf smiled, expansively. "We'll send you some of our pictures."
I noted that a couple of the kids carried little cameras complete with flashcubes, and popped a few shots of the general talking to me. Great action stuff. Hey, it's okay, the Times has huge wastebaskets.
"So, who's the owner of the field?" I asked.
"I am," said a burly, tanned man in denim shirt and jeans, striding out from behind the humvee. "And I wish you and these guys would get out of here instead of trampling what's left of this wheat into the ground."
I got his name, Harv Johnson, mentally labelling him as "first sensible person encountered in Crossland Corners."
To Murfee, he said, "Look, you said you were gonna get outta my field --"
"Now, Mister Johnson," the Murf growled, "you gotta understand this here is national security stuff--" and then his words were drowned by yells - screams, actually - from the militia kids watching the meteor.
I looked, too. A bright line was growing around the top of the dark lump. While we watched, the line became bigger and brighter.
The top part of the meteor was separating from the lower part.
We all still stood there gaping, minutes later, when the top of the meteor separated nicely and smoothly, and fell off. Inside, the meteor was lighted.
I had not wasted all those hours sitting in front of the sci- fi channel. I knew immediately we were looking at an alien space ship. Oh, how earnestly I hoped Gort would emerge and crush General Murfee.
But what climbed out was a little guy, about the size of a large collie dog, and about as furry. His moves were humanoid, and when he turned around I could see that in one...paw? hand?...he held, well, to me it looked like a notebook.
Meanwhile, General Murfee blared, "Ready, men. Aim at that monster and keep it in your sights."
I yelled, "Wait, hold your fire!"
"What? What?" sputtered Murfee.
"Look, it's got a notebook in its hand," I shouted.
The creature bounded down from the meteor/ship, jogged up to me and hissed, "Is there a telephone around here?"
"A telephone?" I gasped.
"Yeah, I gotta call my editor."
Meanwhile, Murfee was yelling, "Listen to that thing roar! And it's attacking the Times guy! After it kills him, shoot! Ready, aim!"
I turned toward Murfee. "The thing is not roaring. It just asked where the telephone is, to call its editor."
Gun barrels were lowered. "You can understand it?" Murfee gasped.
"Sure. News people understand each other," I said. To the alien I asked, "Where in heck are you from? And what are you doing here?"
The little guy sighed. "I'm from the Galaxy Times. You in the business, too?" he said, nodding at my notebook. "My editor is mad at me, so he sent me out here to the sticks for one of those little pink men stories they love to run on slow news days. You know, with weird art showing the pink guys grabbing some babe with her fur falling off."
I sighed sadly on learning that editors are the same all over the galaxy. But I said to the little guy, "Come on, I'll help you find a phone."
"Hey, thanks," he said, flashing me a grin with so many teeth you could see them shining even through all that hair.
We turned to go, but Murfee and his boys blocked the way.
"Just a minute, you two," he growled. "This alien belongs to the government, and he's not going anywhere. And you," he said to me, "belong to the Times and you better go there and write and make sure I get to read your story before you print anything."
"Nobody reads my stories before -- "I began to sputter, but the little alien was edging closer to Murfee. The alien's nose, which was black and shiny like a dog's, was sniffing, sniffing, sniffing.
Then, in his hissing, growly voice, he began to talk. "Wow, you local guys must love this piece of (untranslatable). He smells like a lot of news..."
"What's he saying?" the general snarled, suspiciously.
"He says we must love you a lot," I deadpanned.
"Oh?" A smile oozed over the general's jowly face.
The alien muttered, "Whew, he reeks with under-the-table contributions to some Senator Schlockman - is that the right word? - and, oh, about $50,000 in a - revolving slush fund? - to Representative Porkella...is that the name?"
"Close enough," I said, then translated for the benefit of the general, who began to turn pale.
The alien inhaled deeply. "And his equipment...he's billing the government for it twice when he sells it back to them after it's obsolete - no, that's three times - and he is not using the money to pay his property taxes or his use taxes or his income taxes, because they haven't been paid for...hmmm, it's hard to smell accurately for more than 18 or 20 cycles of your planet..."
I translated cheerfully for the general, whose pallor was now greenish gray.
"What...does...he...want?" the general gasped.
I asked the little alien, who grinned a toothy grin. "What we all want, kid. A good story. Let's get to a phone."
I assured the general that the visiting alien wanted only peace and harmony with our planet, and that I would take him to the Times office for an interview about the way of life where he came from.
Farmer Johnson brightened at the prospect of the action moving out of his wheat field. "So long, guys," he said, hopefully.
Murfee managed a weak nod, and closed his sagging jaw enough to say, "Yeah, okay. Stick to the way-of-life stuff, okay? I'll make it right with you, I promise. Discretion, okay? Okay?"
I looked at the sky and smiled.
On the way back to town, the alien said I should call him Mike, as that was as close to Earth talk as his name would go. We got into the newsroom and I introduced him to Eddie.
While they were talking, I finished my other work - obits, weddings and a few shorts - in time to beat the deadline, barely.
Meantime, Mike and Eddie looked like they were having a good time talking. And Eddie did something really smart. Instead of running a story about the meteor, or about Mike, he just hired Mike away from the Galaxy Times. I don't know what he promised Mike, but part of it was that he didn't have to do any more of those little pink men and babes stories.
In the months that followed, The Times luxuriated in a series of exposes that won us a bunch of prizes. I even got promoted to assistant editor, mixing the joy of another $15 a week with the pain of sitting next to Eddie.
But we couldn't keep Mike long, after he found out what he was worth in Earth dollars. Mike went to the big city, and, of course, to TV. He's a news legend now. You hear people say, "You know you are going to have a bad day when you open your office door and see Mike and his news cameras outside waiting for you."
Sometimes Eddie and I go to the big town and hoist a few with Mike. He's never too busy to see us. He says we have a nice, homey smell that's kind of refreshing. He ought to know - the guy has a nose for news that's out of this world.