Sid’s sweeping up the streets after the Fourth of July. He’s got a broom in his left hand, a sack in his right hand, and three sacks on his belt.
Jane walks past.
“Hey,” says Sid.
Jane spins her head to look at him. She grins. “Hey!”
She holds up a Transformer doll.
“Now that you’ve greeted me I can show you my Transformer!” she says. “It talks! And it knows everything about biochemistry! And it turns from a robot into a beautiful swan or a fire—”
“Um,” he says.
“—work or a ban—”
Sid holds up a hand to stop her.
“Wait,” he says tersely. “Please. No explanations. I need you to trust me and be quiet and hold this bag and wait in a nearby alley.”
Sid holds out the sack he’s been sweeping street dust into.
Jane tilts her head and looks at him sidelong. She frowns.
“But I only have two hands,” Jane protests. “And I need one for the Transformer and one for pointing and gesturing!”
Jane points at the Transformer, and then attempts to point at her pointing hand. This fails, so she gestures irritably.
“Current biotechnology does not allow Jane to grow a third arm at this time,” intones the Transformer.
“You could trade,” Sid offers.
His voice is fraught with tension.
Jane thinks for a second. “Okay!”
Jane hands Sid the Transformer. She takes the bag. She peeks in. “Yay! Dust!”
“Don’t look!” Sid cries. It’s a strangled shout. He closes the bag in her hands.
“It was very shiny,” Jane says. Her eyes are glittering. So are her eyelids and eyelashes. The overall effect is strangely sparkly.
Sid nods sharply.
“It’s liberty dust,” Sid says. “See, Earth is basically a giant engine that produces liberty for our alien masters. The liberty rises into the upper atmosphere and intersects with the super-cooled alien air and—”
Jane stomps on his foot.
Jane pokes him in the chest with her free pointing and gesturing hand.
“You can’t produce liberty for alien masters,” she says. “That’s an oxymormon.”
“Technically,” says the Transformer, biochemically, “an oxymormon is an oxygen atom that is bound to a religious atom that believes Joseph Smith ended the Kali Yuga and restored the Satya Yuga to this Earth. You are thinking of something else.”
“Huh,” says Jane. “But my point stands!”
“True,” says Sid. “I suppose that they’re really more like thuggish symbiotes than masters. Whisht!”
Sid shoves Jane into an alley.
“Hey!” Jane squawks.
Sid stands in front of the alley looking innocent. An alien starship descends from the upper atmosphere. Its bulbous belly discharges a landing ramp. A squat, squamous alien shuffles down.
“Hey,” says Sid.
“Aliens!” says Jane.
“Ixnay on the eakingspay,” hisses Sid.
The alien lifts its head. It snuffles. “Strange noises,” it says. “Do you taunt us again with your ‘Pig Latin’, Earth Sid?”
“A momentary aberration,” Sid assures it.
It shuffles forward. It has the gait of a creature with broken legs, but displays no other signs of pain.
“Please present us the liberty condensate,” it says, “that we pay you $3.75 an hour to collect.”
Sid walks forward, hesitantly. He takes the three sacks from his belt. He passes them over.
The alien looks in a sack. It looks up. Its eyes are glittering. So are its eyelids and eyelashes. The overall effect is horridly sparkly.
“Ah,” it says. “Za’pogh-la. Do you know how it is formed, Earth Sid?”
“Large concentrations of liberty vented into the upper atmosphere, as by fireworks, meet up with the super-cooled alien air and—”
The alien steps on Sid’s foot.
Sid looks aggrieved. That doesn’t normally happen to him twice in one day.
“Silence, Earth Sid! The secret of Za’pogh-la is not for human voice!”
“Just take it,” says Sid. “Take it and go.”
“This is . . . all of it?”
The alien stares at Sid.
“Maybe the air isn’t cold enough any more,” challenges Sid. “Maybe you aliens heated up.”
The alien snurfles dismissively.
“You are careless, Earth Sid. You have swept most of it into the aquifer.”
“He is not careless!”
That’s Jane’s voice, as she runs out of the alley.
“I’ve seen him!” she shouts. “He sweeps every day! Not just on Sweeping Day after 4th of July! He sweeps every day all year to get it all!”
The alien hisses. It turns, and a proboscis unfurls from the mysterious crannies of its face. It stands still, trembling, sniffing at the air.
“Ixnay!” says Sid.
“There’s a girl,” says the alien. It trembles in outrage. “She will contaminate the Za’pogh-la!”
This takes the wind out of Jane’s sails. She did not anticipate that the subject of the discussion would turn directly to her. “What?”
“Sid!” says the alien. “Kill her!”
Sid freezes. Then he turns. He has a haunted look on his face. He pulls out his hand and shapes it into a gun, with his index finger pointing at Jane.
“Bang!” he says. “Bang! Bang! Bang! You’re dead, killed by my Earth weapon!”
Jane stomps her foot, orienting on the familiar. “Am not! You missed!”
“I’m correcting my aim,” Sid says. He’s sweating. “No need for the alien to use its space disintegrator,” he emphasizes. “I’m using a special Earth cyberoptic sight. Bang! You’re dead!”
“I don’t see the cyberoptic sight,” Jane says dubiously.
Sid squints his left eye like a man with a tic. “It’s a half-human, half-machine particle welded directly to the optic nerve.”
“Wow,” says Jane. “That’s lethal!”
She falls down dramatically.
“Avenge me!” she cries. “Avenge me!”
“The Earth girl is slow to die,” says the alien. “Are you sure that your hand-weapon is functional?”
“It is a painful and terrible death,” says Sid sadly, “but slow.”
Sid’s tone hardens.
“I would liefer use it on you,” he adds, “but for the difficulty I would have finding other employment after years of quisling labor.”
The alien turns back towards the ship.
“You will collect more,” it says, indifferently, “next year.”
“Of course,” says Sid.
“Avenge me!” wails Jane.
The alien turns. “Is she truly dead—”
The Transformer flies into the air. It shifts into the form of a firework. It sputters and burns in the air, and then explodes in brilliance.
“—Ah,” sighs the alien, distracted. “So pretty, the explosions of your Earth.”
It stomps into its ship. It rises into the air. Then it is gone.
Sid kneels beside Jane. “Are you all right?” he says.
“I’m not really dead!” Jane tells him. “It’s because I have an immortal spirit.”
“Good,” says Sid. “Those are handy in an apocalypse.”
Jane sits up.
“You shouldn’t collaborate with them,” she says. “They look horrible and alien, so they must be evil.”
“Without the Roswell technology,” notes Sid, “we humans probably wouldn’t have figured out liberty in the first place.”
“Also, it was mean,” Jane says. “It ordered the Earth Sid to kill me! I’m still kind of scared.”
“And if it weren’t for them, up there, farming us,” says Sid, “there wouldn’t be super-cooled alien air in the upper atmosphere at all. They put it there. They saturated it with the elementary particles of alien love. They’re the reason liberty does condense. And that’s why, every year, I can skim a little off the top.”
Sid reclaims the sack from her.
“What’s it for?” Jane asks.
“It’s sparkly,” Sid says.
Jane peers at him.
“I sneak into people’s houses at night,” says Sid, “and blow it in the faces of children who can’t make liberty on their own.”
“Oh,” says Jane.
She stands up. She walks in circles for a bit.
“That’s kind of creepy,” she says.
“It’s mythic and archetypal,” protests Sid. “I’m like Santa or the Witch. Or like Stars, the Thanksgiving Turkey!”
But Jane is distracted. She isn’t paying attention to Sid any more.
“Huh,” says Jane. “My Transformer died.”