That morning, at great personal risk, Stephen's waffle iron attempted to tell him something.
Bachelors were not generally known for their possession of specialized kitchen appliances, but Stephen owned a full array of top-of-the-line single use devices, including the aforementioned waffle iron. And perhaps only slightly more bizarre, Stephen's kitchen gadgets were rather more sentient than any electronic device had a right to be. This was pure self-defense on their part, sheer will to survive actualized by the field of latent unreality that clung to Stephen like a second skin. Only the waffle iron and the blender were old enough to recall the horrifying day when the espresso machine, upon beeping at an inopportune time, had been redefined by a startled Stephen into greasy slag that smelled faintly of French roast.
Thus it was with no small amount of trepidation that the waffle iron sought to draw Stephen's attention to odd fluctuations of the power grid by flickering its little red light and letting out a strangled beep.
Stephen set his tablet down; he'd been scrolling through the morning's market reports. The waffle iron dared another plaintive beep as he opened it and levered the waffle free. Stephen frowned, patting at his pocket in search of his pen. "Not going bad, are you?"
Immediately the waffle iron held its light steady. The pen carried with it disturbing implications. Stephen had a degree in theoretical mathematics, which involved solving problems within a closely constrained world where all the rules made sense. But his passion and talent lay in slicing through reality with a sharpened slide rule and redefining the fiddly bits so problems politely solved themselves. In short, Stephen Charlemagne Robins was the rarest sort of person in the universe: a combat mathematician.
A combat mathematician who promptly wandered from the kitchen, plated waffle in hand, tablet forgotten on the counter.
And that, the waffle iron thought with no small amount of bitterness, was the biggest problem with Stephen. The man loved his waffles, but he didn't blink nearly often enough and was utterly abysmal at asking the right questions.
There was one important fact that no one, not even the waffle iron, knew about Stephen: he was an alien. His name could be expressed using a string of pictograms too tiresome to reproduce here, translating out as ZETA ROSE KICK. His species, which for similar reasons will be called GORMAC, was one with a rude habit of expanding its empire by marching onto less technologically advanced planets and taking them over. Had anyone asked Stephen his opinion, he would have said it was like growing up on a planet of nothing but jocks, only these jocks communicated via shouting and were armed with rifles that shot bolts of plasma and went fzzt.
Stephen was also the incredibly rare sort of mathematician that had a distressing tendency to cut through reality with a sharpened slide rule and arrange the world in such a way that problems obediently solved themselves. He had no interest in spending the rest of his life trapped in a lab, making bigger and louder fzzt guns, so he had lied his way into the army and quickly volunteered for a solo mission that took him to Earth, disguised as a human. Once there, he'd promptly fallen down an elevator shaft. Some nice real humans had scraped the would-be conqueror into an odd vehicle with flashing lights that had taken him to a nearby medical facility, where he was wheeled past a family milling about under the hideous fluorescent lighting of the waiting room. They weren't shouting, and Stephen needed a graceful way to escape his commanding officers. In desperation he'd opened up the set of that family and inserted himself into it. The metamathematical feedback from a twenty-five year wedge of history being stretched in new and uncomfortable ways to accommodate this operation left him near comatose for a week.
It had all seemed like such a good idea at the time.
The power fluctuations were getting worse. And it was, to the waffle iron's mind, Stephen's job to figure out this problem. It made waffles, Stephen ate them, and then Stephen made certain the world continued to spin cheerfully on its axis so the waffle iron could make waffles again the next day. This was the proper order of things. From its perch on top of the refrigerator, the blender agreed, albeit with greater focus on fruit and frozen yogurt smoothies.
The main obstacle to alerting Stephen was the sunlight streaming through the floor-to-ceiling windows of his penthouse, which meant he didn't have to turn on the overhead lights. So, the blender pointed out, the obvious solution was to get him to leave the apartment and view the power grid in its natural environment, out in the city.
The question was how.
Rather than a useful answer, the tablet interrupted the intense discussion with a mocking electronic snicker followed by a snippy comment about dumb kitchen appliances not knowing their place.
To the blender, who had always borne the brunt of the tablet's sarcasm, this was apparently the peach pit that bent the blade. The blender tipped from the top of the fridge, and as the waffle iron watched in mute shock, struck the tablet, flipping the smug machine onto the floor with a crash. The stolid blender survived its impact with the granite counter with only a minor dent. The tablet did not fare so well against the ceramic tiles of the floor.
Stephen poked his head back into the kitchen, half-finished waffle in hand. "What—" Frowning, he set his waffle on the counter and then crouched over the downed tablet, examining the mangled screen and poking at the 'on' button to no avail. Stephen discarded the tablet and turned his attention to the blender, which he set on the counter and tested. "Well, at least you're all right. Sturdy thing." With an annoyed sigh, he returned the blender to the top of the fridge. "I was about due for a new tablet anyway, I suppose. Shops ought to be open by now."
Good, the waffle iron thought. Go out, have a look around. Its satisfied train of thought derailed when Stephen left, breakfast forgotten next to the deceased tablet.
Stephen didn't notice anything amiss until he'd gotten five blocks from his apartment. There, a window filled with flatscreen TVs, displays of sports programs and CSI: Aruba stuttering in a peculiar fashion, caught his attention. One hand patted his pocket for his pen as he sought a pattern in the seeming randomness. Lacking paper, he began sketching out equations on his sleeve.
Behind him, the pedestrians filling the sidewalk went still and looked skyward as the sunlight dimmed in a wash of roiling black smoke laced with gouts of flame. A rumble as of distant thunder shook the nearby windows. People streamed from the shop, stopping to murmur and point as the clouds resolved into discrete shapes.
Stephen capped the last mathematical sentence off with three dots in a triangle. He frowned at the solution; at eight significant figures, it was unique, real, and the familiar signature of something big and utterly tasteless interfering with a primitive power grid. "Damn."
Only then did he look up, taking in the frightened silence of the crowded sidewalk and the giant, smoking clouds hanging in the air among the skyscrapers. Unlike the humans, Stephen knew precisely what those were. "Double damn," he muttered.
Streams of superheated gas peeled away to reveal a series of irregularly rod-shaped ships. Stephen's species, unconcerned with aesthetics, tended to prefer that their warships look like clubs, to convey the message that someone was about to get smashed about the head rather impressively. As if to add insult to injury, he spotted the bulbous shape of the GAMMA SLEET-99, the ship whose crew he'd once been among, hanging at the center of the fleet. "Oh triple damn," Stephen groaned.
"They're opening!" someone shouted.
This, Stephen thought grimly as he began to work his way through the crowd, was the bit where the explosions started. And, from what he'd observed of humanity, there'd be much panicked screaming as well.
Yes, screaming. The terrified humans ran, shoving each other in their haste.
Scowling, Stephen didn't look back to see which building was now missing its top. The humans probably would have rolled over and asked that their bellies be rubbed with a bit of dishonest "we come in peace." Blowing things up was messy and unnecessary. Of course, telling the commanders that they shouldn't use their honking great fzzt guns to atomize a few buildings would be like explaining to his adopted sister that the limit on a credit card was not, in fact, an invitation.
In-atmosphere fighters, looking like metal croissants with nasty attitudes and rotten taste in industrial music, flowed by overhead, underslung turrets swiveling to spit out projectiles. Running, though with less screaming thank you very much, seemed like a very good idea. Stephen carefully bent an arc of light by fiddling with the ambient vectors, rendering himself effectively invisible, and retreated to his apartment.
Stephen paced across the white carpet—more proof he wasn't actually human: it was as spotless as the day he'd had it installed—his hands coming up to grip his curly black locks and pull. He didn't relish the thought of continuing his existence as human, not if it would involve working in the dank pit of a mine, or if he was even less lucky, serving as the personal slime dabber of some degenerate governor. Revealing himself to the GORMAC was equally unpalatable; even if he managed to lie at nearly the speed of light he'd still be back in a life of shouting, shouting, polishing fzzt guns, and more shouting.
His cell phone rang, playing a recording of "Nights in White Satin," a song he'd never really understood but about which his adopted mother had always gotten misty. "Hello? Mum? This isn't really a good—"
"Stephen! Honey, I saw—at the gym, it's all over the news! Are you all right? Tell me you're okay!"
Something primal in Stephen's brain said this was a tone of voice that required immediate fixing, in the form of very calmly delivered lies. "I'm okay, Mum. Don't worry. It's not as bad as it looks."
"There are things blowing up! I saw them! On the TV! Your asthma, Stephen! All of that dust!"
Outside, as if to punctuate her statement, the side blew off a nearby building. Stephen turned quickly away from the windows, as if that would somehow prevent his mother from seeing through the phone and sensing just how many whoppers he was about to lay on her. "Well, maybe a few small explosions. Little ones. It's all under control, it really is." A flash of light outside and he hastily covered the phone's mic with his hand until the rumble had passed. "And it's all on the west side. Nowhere near my apartment."
"You have to get out of there, honey! Come home, right away!"
"I'm going to hop in the car and leave now. Promise. I'll call you back, Mum. Don't watch too much TV, it'll just make you worry youknowhowreportersareloveyoubye." He quickly hung up.
"Nights in White Satin" began to play again; he silenced the phone and resumed pacing. It was all too easy to imagine his adopted mother in a burnt orange jumpsuit, pristine despite the fact that she'd been exercising for hours, leaning on a treadmill with the phone clutched to her chest. She'd been a professional tennis player in the years before Stephen's arrival. It had been the rude joke of an ironic universe that he'd unwittingly attached himself to yet another set filled with nothing but jocks.
Stephen gave his head a shake and prowled through the apartment, collecting a small pile of items he simply could not live without. It was rather pitiful, all told: his favorite pens, several pads of fancy stationery, a thumb drive of books and pictures. The drive had been a free gift at a conference and was hidden in a cheerful, red, cartoon car. After a moment of hesitation he fetched the framed picture of his so-called family and set it on the pile.
Normally he wasn't the sentimental sort. His species had a wide array of allergies, and any signs of tenderness gave most of them hives. But the thought of abandoning the picture left him feeling unfamiliarly ill. His three GORMAC broodparents probably hadn't yet noticed he was missing. He had no illusions they would have called, or written, or insisted he needed to wear a sweatshirt (never a sweater) because it was terribly cold where they were.
A text message from his mother popped up on his phone: be careful honey I love you don't be a hero.
Stephen chuckled bitterly. Why she felt the need to tell him of all people that, he couldn't imagine. He'd never done anything heroic in his life, and had spent much of his pre-human time targeted by accusations of cowardice because he didn't laugh quite loudly enough when things blew up.
It was, the unpleasant gnawing at the back of Stephen's mind informed him, because she believed in him. She'd always seemed so worried that he'd think he wasn't loved because he wasn't into sports like the rest of the family, when really he'd been more concerned with whether he was actually managing to ape human behavior well enough to pass. There had been an incredibly awkward conversation with her midway through university when she'd asked if he was gay, then assured him she loved him no matter what before he could think of a diplomatic answer.
"Don't be a hero," he muttered. "Order of magnitude damn."
On the counter, the waffle iron flickered its light as if to agree, No Stephen, don't be a hero. Let's get the hell out of Dodge. We can have waffles on the other side.
Stephen unplugged the machine, then folded an interdimensional pocket from space and tucked the small relics of a false life away inside. "Sorry, Mum."
From its perch atop the refrigerator, the blender looked on sadly as its best friend vanished from view.
Stephen's plan for escaping his doomed adopted home was simple enough: rejoin the fleet as a stowaway, keeping as far from the GAMMA SLEET-99 as possible. While the GORMAC had the necessary basic creativity for treachery of an Italian operatic sort, there was a gentleblob's agreement that planetary invasion was one of those places where such maneuvering was set aside. When there was an Us and a Them available, the fzzt gun always ended up pointed squarely at Them, easily defined as Not Slimy and Covered With Tentacles. He'd be able to lie with cheerful impunity so long as he avoided anyone that had actually known him, and no one would think about it twice.
After taking the elevator down to the deserted lobby of his apartment building, Stephen erased the equation that had been translating all of his attendant defining fields into something human-shaped. In a disturbing way that would later give the man in charge of reviewing security tapes a very good excuse to request medical leave for reasons of mental health, his body inverted back into its natural shape, tentacles, slime and all.
Stephen, who still refused to think of itself as ZETA ROSE KICK (it had never liked that name), slipped out the revolving door and into the street. While it still had the transportation beacon with which it had been sent to Earth, using that seemed a suicidal idea at best since it would return him directly to the GAMMA SLEET-99. Another nasty metal croissant that should have by all rights been accompanied by a thumping baseline and snarling guitar riff sailed overhead. Stephen flagged it down using the intergalactically recognized signal of distress: it frantically waved all of its tentacles and bounced up and down.
The fighter slowed, stopped, and carefully reversed, its anti-grav field generators summarily crushing two cars and snapping off a row of parking meters. The canopy opened. "WHAT ARE YOU DOING OUT HERE?" the GORMAC inside shouted.
Stephen managed, barely, to hide its wince. "Ship went down—"
"WHAT? SPEAK UP."
Stephen drew in a deep breath. "SHIP WENT DOWN. I'M GOING TO HAVE THE MAINTENANCE TECH'S GRIBLECKS FOR SPORTBALL, I SWEAR. HA HA."
"HA HA," the pilot agreed. "JUMP IN. I'M ABOUT OUT OF ORDNANCE ANYWAY."
Stephen stretched upward, then clambered into the fighter. "Thanks, man. I owe you one."
The fighter bay of the atmospheric GORMAC ship was wonderfully chaotic, allowing Stephen to slip away from its overly friendly savior. This was something of a relief for them both, since the pilot was an enthusiastic planetary sportball fan and Stephen had quickly run out of noncommittal but supportive things it could say that didn't immediately reveal its ignorance. It had at least gotten the pilot off on a tangent about player statistics, and felt on firmer footing with the involvement of numbers even if it had no idea of their relevance.
Once again hiding behind a twist of light, Stephen snuck into the cargo holds. In an out-of-the-way corner, it set up a little sleeping space for itself, moving crates to make serviceable walls and arranging its few personal objects from home. Some fiddling with circuits allowed it to tie the waffle iron to the ship's power grid. Stephen idly sucked on the now-burnt end of one tentacle and surveyed its refuge with no small amount of self-pity. "Well, this is it," it muttered.
The waffle iron didn't so much feel self-pity as a vague sense of horror.
"Might as well eat though, right?" Stephen dug through one of the crates until it came up with a ration pack. "This is a bit like batter. . . " It mixed up the packet and poured the resulting bright vermillion liquid into the waffle iron.
The waffle iron's horror abruptly became much less vague. The air filled with a scent not unlike burning hair, and the appliance let out a strangled beep that, loosely translated, came out to: Oh god get it off me, get it off me, please get it off me!
Stephen complied with commendable speed, singeing another of its tentacles in the process. The resulting mess was hastily stuffed down the nearby garbage chute. Then Stephen slopped onto a crate, as forlorn as the second cousin to a bit of rotten broccoli could be.
This was a nightmare, the waffle iron decided. An utter nightmare, where a brave kitchen appliance, in the midst of an invasion by hostile wads of snot, was abducted to a prison where there were no waffles, no hope, and an alien power grid that had almost certainly voided its warranty.
Stephen's thoughts, it should be noted, were quite similar. Except for the bit about the warranty. Warranties, in its opinion, were things that applied to other people. People who hadn't instilled the proper sort of fear in their appliances. Only there wouldn't be more appliances; no more blenders, or espresso machines, or toasty makers. Just guns that went fzzt. It knew how many planets were out there. It knew how astronomical the odds had been of finding one place that it liked enough to want to stay and vaguely fake its way through being a decent citizen.
It sighed. The waffle iron echoed that sentiment with a flicker of its light.
Slowly, Stephen picked up its cell phone, paging to the last text from its adopted mother: be careful honey I love you don't be a hero. It felt strange to be holding the phone with an array of tentacles. While Stephen had never quite felt human, a hand with five fingers certainly seemed more natural now than all the wiggly bits it had been hatched with.
Another text message popped up on the screen, this time from Dad: ur mom sez ur in trubble. dont do anythin dum.
Stephen had always thought Dad meant things like that literally. Dad had been a professional football player, a famous defensive lineman, and still seemed to have the habit of ducking his bullet-shaped head and charging straight at whatever he thought required his attention. But now in light of the conversation with Mum, Stephen was forced to wonder. Perhaps 'don't do anything dumb' was just 'don't be a hero' was 'be careful, I love you' in different clothes.
It stared pensively at the waffle iron, with far too many eyes for the appliance's comfort.
Stephen had spent an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out the equations surrounding love, and it had never gotten the significant figures right. Love was a variable that eluded its understanding, yet had been applied to it countless times by people who really should have known better considering its insistence on being utterly bizarre and incapable of understanding the joys of March Madness. After the initial shock of Stephen's abrupt inclusion into that family set in the middle of the hospital, nothing had forced them to actually like their new member. They'd just done it.
But that, Stephen was forced to admit, was most definitely a feature of humans rather than a bug, right up there with being able to speak in normal conversational tones: sometimes they liked you because you were different and not just in spite of it.
The more it thought the matter over, Stephen found that despite all their differences, it certainly liked this family it had chosen by accident far more than the entire species that had spawned the GORMAC formerly known as ZETA ROSE KICK.
"All right," Stephen said, as if it had just won an argument with itself. And in a way, it had. Something that involved defining the difference between survival and living and deciding the latter was preferable even if danger was involved. "Don't do anything dumb. Don't be a hero," it muttered, reading the text messages again.
It took up its favorite pen and pad of paper. Feverishly, it began to write out equation after equation, applications and contingencies and effects to hang on each other like a cascade, bending light and rearranging aromatic molecules and hopefully not getting itself killed in the process. The papers smoked faintly in protest of these proposed alterations to reality as Stephen finished the last of the equations then read them over. Everything seemed to be in order, all of the variables balanced out. That was really all it needed; it was a description to remind it which ways it would be twisting physics to suit its purposes. It followed this written blueprint to the letter to build the effects it wanted one by one, then converted them to ones and zeroes, ignoring the protesting squeals of subatomic particles and the crunchy resistance of quantum mechanics having its gears stripped. There really wasn't time to do things delicately. Everything was then stuffed into the car-shaped thumb drive, ruthlessly erasing its collected files to make room. A bit more twisting of reality, and it had the drive mated to the ship's systems and waiting.
The waffle iron emitted an inquiring chirp.
"I'm not going to be dumb, and I'm not going to be a hero," Stephen said. It rose to its full height. "I'm going to be a mathematician."
Then it hurried from the cargo hold, leaving the waffle iron to consider bitterly how abandoning one's only means of making waffles could conceivably be anything but dumb.
Leaving the ship was even easier than arriving. Stephen simply returned to the fighter bay, slotted itself into the line of guffawing, shouting GORMAC pilots and waited its turn. The metal croissant Stephen was assigned smelled vaguely like cheese and swamp, something it tried to not consider too closely. It had a bad moment trying to recall how to fly the ship, but thankfully found the operating manual, its instructions all written in a very emphatic font, stashed under the pilot's seat.
Flying over the city, Stephen took a couple of potshots at the local DMV office (the last time it had been there, it'd been forced to wait for hours while a woman with thick glasses glared at it every time it tried to restring time) then flew to the nearest department store. Parallel parking the fighter turned out to be trickier than anticipated and finally it gave up and cleared space by reducing a pickup truck (complete with "They are here!" bumper sticker) to slag. The department store was utterly deserted, its customers having long since fled, and displayed large banners crowing about newly-arrived fall fashions. Both of these factors were perfect.
After a quick trip to the home and kitchen department to acquire a set of barbecue tongs and a pass through the in-house drugstore for a healthy whack of Benadryl, Stephen tore through the aforementioned fall fashions. Then it hurried from the store, a bright green paper shopping bag slung jauntily over one tentacle. Out in the street, large vehicles belonging to the human Army rolled by, top-mounted machine guns swiveling, wheels crunching over debris.
Someone shouted, "What the hell is that thing?"
One of the rumbling combat vehicles squealed to a halt, the driver inside staring open-mouthed. The man in charge of the machine gun at least had the presence of mind to turn the weapon in the right direction.
"What did you expect?" Stephen demanded, exasperated. Upon sober reflection, it had seen enough television to know what they'd probably expected, and it would be something that looked human with a few added bumpy bits.
"You! Put your—your—all of those tentacles up!" the human soldier shouted.
Stephen obligingly pointed the majority of its appendages toward the sky. With one of the tentacles they couldn't see, it pulled its old transportation beacon from a pocket in space. The beacon would return Stephen to the ship it had once crewed via emergency matter transmission. "Don't be dumb, don't be a hero," it muttered to itself.
"Not like I got a choice, buddy," the human soldier said, visibly bemused.
"I was expecting something more like, 'Prepare to die, ugly bags of mostly water,' myself," said the soldier at the machine gun.
"We're mostly water too, you know," Stephen said, right before it triggered the transportation beacon.
The situation obligingly transformed into something far uglier.
Gone was the sunny—if now wrecked—street. Instead everything was red-lit with wisps of auxiliary steam lovingly inserted into the air by standpipes, the architecture uniformly utilitarian and boxy. The bridge was arranged for compactness of space and easy access to climbing tracks in a vertically oriented room. But the true ugliness came from the hefty GORMAC not a foot away from him with a large, faintly smoking gun pointed at one of his nerve clusters: KREBLAM FLAN SNOOTLE, captain of the GAMMA SLEET-99.
"Sir!" Stephen squeaked.
"ZETA ROSE KICK YOU WERE PRESUMED DEAD JUSTIFY THIS," his former commanding officer shouted.
Stephen had expected this question. "I was captured, sir."
"The natives of this planet may not look it, but they have many mathematicians to rival our own. They took me prisoner."
The commander blinked all of its eyes. "IMPOSSIBLE."
"BUT YOU HAVE NOW ESCAPED."
"The human mathematicians released me," Stephen said with the utmost misery in its voice. "Because they knew you would transport me back up."
"EXPLAIN THIS! EXPLAIN! IMMEDIATELY!"
Stephen pulled a tissue-wrapped package from the department store shopping bag. Trembling with apparent fear, it unfolded the object—a hideous sweater, which featured an unfortunate argyle pattern, when had that come back into fashion, perhaps a little alien conquest would do humanity some good—and let it fall to the floor. "This is their weapon—"
The commander shot the sweater, vaporizing it instantly and leaving an interestingly-shaped burn mark on the floor.
Stephen sighed. "Well now you've done it."
"EXPLAIN! YOU ARE STILL NOT EXPLAINING SUFFICIENTLY!"
"Those things are bad enough in solid form, but you've made it airborne now," Stephen said, increasingly squeaky. "It's toxic. And while their soldiers distract you, the human mathematicians are going to start filling our ships with them since you've brought everyone into range!"
The commander made a strangled sound, pawing at its many eyes as they began to film over.
There was only one true statement in Stephen's entire story: it had accidentally discovered that the GORMAC had a toxic allergy to wool. Which had made for an overly exciting family Christmas a few years before.
"TRAITOR!" the commander squeaked as its breathing passages began to shut down. It leveled the fzzt gun at Stephen and fired.
Stephen was flung back, and as one would expect after being shot, landed in a still, smoking heap against a control panel.
"CONTAINMENT SUITS! CONTAINMENT! EMERGENCY! COMPLETE WITHDRAWAL!" the commander shouted. "MEDIC! GET ME A MEDIC!"
"SIR!" "AYE SIR!" "SIR!" "AYE AYE!"
The other GORMAC populating the bridge hastened to follow the orders, wrapping themselves in clear containment bubbles as the commander wheezed and dropped its gun. A medic showed up and fussed, "THIS IS A BIOLOGICAL AGENT UNLIKE ANY I HAVE ENCOUNTERED. I WILL NEED TIME FOR ANALYSIS."
"FULL RETREAT. TRANSMIT REPORT. TELL COMMAND THAT WE WILL NEED THE PLANET KILLER. THIS CANNOT BE ALLOWED TO STAND." With a supreme effort, the commander continued to shout orders even as it collapsed to the deck, tentacles twitching spasmodically. "AND GET THAT THING OFF MY SHIP!"
More of the crew rushed to grab the corpse of the unfortunate ZETA ROSE KICK and drag it away.
As the doors to the bridge closed, the helmsblob shouted, "SIR, THERE IS A NAVIGATION ERROR—"
With little regard for the corpse dragging along between them, the two GORMAC rapidly climbed through a series of corridors, the dead private bouncing over ladders and getting hung up on corners. "ALWAYS KNEW THIS ONE WOULD BE NO GOOD," the first said.
"HEARD AT THE FUNERAL THAT IT DIDN'T LIKE SHOOTING," the other commented.
"IT NEVER TALKED LOUD ENOUGH TO BE HEARD. YOU CAN'T TRUST BLOBS LIKE THAT."
The two turned down one last corridor and stuffed the corpse into the airlock, shoving at limp tentacles to get them to stay stacked up. One small tentacle still slipped free and hung out as the airlock door slid shut, cutting it in half.
"YOU HEAR SOMETHING?"
"NAH, JUST THE ALARMS."
Of course the waffle iron, so thoughtlessly abandoned in the cargo hold of the previous ship when Stephen rushed off, had no idea its waffle-consumer had gotten itself so un-heroically shot.
The waffle iron had occupied its time by brooding on Stephen's departure. Just typical, it thought. Give the man—the blob, the whatever—the best years of one's life, unfailingly serving him delicious breakfast pastries every morning, and then find out that he's an alien. This sort of thing was definitely not covered in the instruction manual.
Then it had far more pressing concerns as several eyestalks peering around the corner heralded the arrival of a GORMAC technician, intent on tracking down a strange little flutter in the ship's power systems.
"STOWAWAY, EH?" The technician squidged fully into the blocked-off area and poked at Stephen's abandoned possessions. It picked up the picture of Stephen's family. "UGH, HIDEOUS," then chucked it negligently toward the garbage chute. The waffle iron was on the receiving end of a dismissive poke and a disparaging comment about "PRIMITIVE TECHNOLOGY."
There was only so much a mild-mannered kitchen appliance could take. The waffle iron didn't know what fate its next action would lead to, but it had to be better than this; waffle-less this. Anything had to be better.
And it rather liked Stephen's mum. She'd made churro waffles once when visiting Stephen, one of its fondest memories.
The waffle iron wobbled and let out a shrill beep, perhaps best translated as: Yippee Ki-yay—
Then it dropped from the crate on which Stephen had placed it, flipping open mid-air, and gave the GORMAC two piping-hot grids to the slime.
The GORMAC shrieked in a satisfactory manner and pried the waffle iron away from its tenderer jiggly bits. In a rage, it flung the little appliance into the garbage chute. Then, whimpering and still steaming out an aroma vaguely like cooked shrimp, the alien limped away to the infirmary, leaving the cheerfully smiling red plastic car and the thumb drive hidden within it firmly in place.
Flushed out of the GAMMA SLEET-99, Stephen gave itself the luxury of a good three seconds of screaming and frantically flailing its tentacles, one now sadly truncated. Despite all evidence it had seen to the contrary in humans, neither of those things actually lessened the pain. As it dropped past the ship, the air suddenly filled with tumbling wads of garbage. Stephen felt a bit of distracted satisfaction at that; it was standard operating procedure to jettison all refuse before breaking from orbit, which meant its plan would work.
Then it went back to screaming.
Concurrently the waffle iron, now manfully preparing for a pavement-shattering landing, was rather shocked to see Stephen tumbling from a nearby ship. It had just enough power left in one capacitor for a beep and a flicker, which it carefully timed for a moment when Stephen was taking a break from screaming in order to inhale. Sacrificing itself to save the source of all waffles (a planet known to humans as Earth) was well and good, but given the option it much preferred to not enter the KitchenAid hall of martyrs.
The familiar beep caught Stephen's attention, and the flicker drew one of its eyes. "My waffle iron!" And near the waffle iron, Stephen spied its family picture as well. With a quick calculation it wrinkled local space just enough so it could snatch both from the air with two tentacles. Stephen hugged the device close without bothering to question how they had happened to meet like this. Catching sight of the familiar brushed metal veneer was a comfort.
But still there was the pressing problem of acceleration. It had a limited time to find an alternative way to the ground not involving terminal velocity and an abrupt cessation of motion and vital signs. If it didn't fix this issue, waffles and pictures would become irrelevant in very short order.
Stephen dropped the contingent effects that had absorbed the rifle fire and produced the smoke when it had been shot, since they were no longer necessary. Quickly, it rearranged its wind resistance so that it had the aerodynamics of a disc approximately a mile across, which triggered some much needed deceleration. The excess heat from friction was dumped off into the surrounding water vapor and condensate, effectively blasting the nearby clouds into thin oblivion.
Moving at a more reasonable speed, Stephen picked a familiar point in space, made it the same as one that he was fast approaching, and fell through.
Even slowed, hitting the sidewalk was unpleasant. Stephen lay still for a moment and considered if moving was advisable or even possible at this time. The waffle iron clattered to a slightly gentler halt next to it, followed by the thoroughly abused picture with a ping of cracking glass.
A woman screamed. The sound was followed by a thrown brick landing near the center of Stephen's mass.
"Ow!" Using a light pole for support, Stephen levered itself upright and glared at the woman in question. Considering the number of eyes it had, the glare was impressive indeed. "That," it said carefully, "was very, very rude. And uncalled-for."
The woman, not mentally equipped to handle this, fainted.
Stephen recalled the original set of equations it had used to translate its body shape so many years ago and executed them, rearranging structures and rebalancing colors until once again it looked human.
He looked down at his hand, which now ached in time with his heartbeat. (A heartbeat—how curious it was, that he'd missed that strange sound/sensation in the time he'd been back to his original body.) The tip of his left ring finger was missing and oozing emphatic drops of blood. Grimacing, he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and tied it around the wound.
People were cautiously peeping from the buildings as the last of the fighters retreated to the ships. Which were, Stephen noted with gratification, powering back into the upper atmosphere with all haste.
"Where are they going?" a girl emerging from the nearby McDonald's asked.
Stephen wasn't certain if she was talking to him, or just asking the air in that curious way humans had. He answered, just in case. "Away. That's the important part, isn't it?"
He shrugged, bending to pick up the waffle iron and tuck it under his arm. The picture he held between his hands for a moment before he twisted it into a pocket of space. "They really don't like sweaters."
The girl turned to stare at him, but he'd already begun to walk away. Despite the pain in his hand, he even managed a bit of cheerful humming. If he'd done his job properly, the GORMAC wouldn't be back. The thumb drive should have added a bug to their navigation data—he'd had just enough time on impact with the console after being shot to tell it to download the much more sophisticated program from that source—a metamathematical virus that would remove the location of the Sol system from all of the GORMAC networks. Hopefully before the fleet made its first interstellar jump and ended up, as directed, in the center of the nearest red supergiant.
He felt slightly less jaunty about the situation when he arrived back at his apartment building. The top was a discouraging, smoky ruin and the elevators entirely non-functional. He trudged up the stairs to find his apartment was still half there—the bottom half. For a moment, he simply stared at the blackened mess that had once been his refrigerator, then sighed.
Of all ridiculous things, he was hungry. That many maths and almost dying twice took quite a bit of energy.
Stephen brushed shattered glass and spilled spices from his counter so he could set down the waffle iron, followed by the cracked and warped picture frame, placed with infinite care. He dug around in the cabinets and came up with a container of pre-made waffle and pancake batter. The electrical outlet, shockingly, still worked.
But the waffle iron, which had just been on an adventure that no kitchen appliance in its right mind would ever want and was now reeling from the loss of the blender, shuddered in the depths of its circuits and couldn't bring itself to turn on.
In Stephen's pocket, his cell phone began to play "Nights in White Satin." He answered, trapping the phone between shoulder and ear. "Hello mum. . . yes, I don't know either. Strangest thing. I was cowering somewhere nice and safe. . . well, I didn't want you to worry, right? Thus, I have no idea at all. . . " A mournful expression on his face, he prodded the waffle iron with a finger as he searched for a pen with his other hand, leaving specks of blood behind on his thoroughly abused shirt.
Heroism, like love, was another set of equations Stephen had never quite gotten a handle on. But the waffle iron, kitchen veteran and connoisseur of syndicated science fiction shows that seemed to always be playing when Stephen fell sleep on the couch, knew: heroism could have many meanings, and perhaps the best of those didn't involve shouting or shooting at things, let alone bragging about them later. Saving the world wasn't about the large numbers, but the tiny factors out past decimal points that got lost in rounding by people who didn't understand truly significant figures. In the end, it was those things, so easily overlooked, that mattered the most.
And waffles. Waffles always mattered.
The waffle iron had saved the world, though Stephen had helped. And that, it thought, deserved a celebration. It would make waffles, and Stephen had damn well better enjoy them.
Its light came on and glowed a reassuring orange.
Stephen smiled. The expression wasn't quite right, not after his face had been so recently rearranged into something that was most decidedly not a face, but it was good enough for the waffle iron: real and definitely unique.