The RV’s right tires hit the rough shoulder and Judith snapped awake and swerved back into her lane. Her heartbeat raced. That was close. Had she dozed off?
Bob Four’s hand touched her arm. “Would you like me to drive?”
“No. No, it’s okay.” She wished Joe were here. She needed someone to drive while she rested, and there was no one she could trust to do it. It was more than a matter of Bob’s short legs. The RV was a large vehicle and in spite of power steering and brakes, took more strength than she had expected. If this had been a real vacation, she’d let Joe do all the driving.
US Highway 60 was a two-lane east-west road, but there was very little traffic on it. Interstate 40 to the north and Interstate 10 to the south were both trucker routes. Highway 60 had too many mountains and had never been given the interstate makeover.
They had put the “Roswell or Bust!” signs back up, and Bob One had elected to ride up front with her for the first hour. Bob Four took his place after a while.
“What’s that?” A long thin finger pointed off to the side.
Judith looked off across the rolling hills. There were small trees, oaks and cedars, but she suspected he meant the metal structure on the peak.
“That’s a microwave tower. See the dish at the top. It’s a relay station. Various radio signals, like television and telephone links, travel from relay to relay across country.”
“It’s not a broadcast station?”
“No.” She suspected he was thinking of their escape plan. “Just a low power, focused signal. It wouldn’t work.”
“I suspected that would be true.”
They had passed into New Mexico with hardly a sign to announce the fact. She knew from previous trips that this was a pleasant route, but with few tourist attractions. Poor Bobs.
A tiny sign caught her attention. She chuckled and shook her head.
“What is it?”
“Just a road sign. Pie Town is forty miles ahead.”
She attempted to explain, but he couldn’t quite understand the concept of a pie. It was just as well. It wasn’t likely anything they could eat.
Joe would have been interested.
It was dusk when Bob Four leaned forward and pointed off to the southeast. “What’s that?”
They were dropping in altitude, entering a broad valley many miles wide.
“Oh! I’d forgotten.”
“What is it? Are those radio dishes?”
And indeed they were. By the time they’d approached the tourist pull off, the light was nearly gone, but the three-pronged array of white giant radio telescopes was still an impressive sight.
All three Bobs were up in the front with her. She looked back and saw that the Freds had climbed up on the kitchen table where they could see, too.
There was no help for it. Luckily, there were no other vehicles at the pull off and she slowed to a stop next to the marker.
Bob One asked, “Does it transmit?”
She didn’t know. She pointed. “Can you read the sign?”
With the help of the talkie, they could. It was the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, Very Large Array radio telescope—twenty-seven large steerable dishes, each of which could be moved on the facility’s own private railroad. It was a three-spoked, ‘Y’ array that allowed the eighty-foot wide, massive dishes to be configured into a giant phased array.
She tried to explain what she’d learned from her visit on an earlier trip, but she had to confess her limitations. “I have no idea why they move them.”
Bob Seven said, “That’s obvious. The wider the dishes, the more the magnification, but sometimes you’d want to look at something large, so you’d want it less magnified.”
“I didn’t see anything that hinted at transmissions.”
“Any dish like that could be converted into a transmitter.”
She didn’t like that idea. “But how long would it take? Besides, we don’t have everyone here yet.”
They talked among themselves, but at least they didn’t attempt to cut her out of the conversation.
“We need to move on.” There was no objection.
Bob One took the map out and they marked the location of the VLA.
She clicked on the headlights and pulled back onto the road. The aliens began to head back to what they had been doing before.
Bob Four went back to the bedroom to see if he could pick up any television channels. Soon she was alone in the darkened cabin. Her eyes quickly blurred. Judith blinked and tried to pinch her earlobe to see if she could stay awake a little longer. There was still quite a way to go.
“Hey, could someone come up here and talk. It’ll help me stay awake.”
To her surprise, a Fred came up and perched on the center hump that covered the engine.
“Hello, Fred Two.” She’d never had a Fred talk to her. In fact only her father claimed to have ever heard a Fred talk. “Are you enjoying your travel time?”
What, she wondered, would be important enough for a Fred to talk to a human. She had lots of questions, but which were suitable for polite conversation? What was sludge? Did Fred’s have eyes, and if so, where were they?
Then Fred Two spoke, and to her surprise, the voice sounded like a young girl’s.
“Judith, are you pregnant?”
“What? No, of course not! What makes you think I would be?” The RV wobbled a little towards the shoulder, but she brought it back under control.
And then Fred Two, or would that be Frederica, began to move off her pedestal. Judith reached out and put her hand around a tentacle.
“Stop. What made you think I was pregnant?”
Frederica tugged loose, then said, “The Bobs were talking.”
She slipped free and went back.
Judith fumed. “Bob One, get up here, now!”
“What have you been saying about me?”
He blinked those large Bob eyes. “What do you mean?”
“Don’t play innocent with me.” She repeated what Frederica had said.
She glared at him, indicating plainly that she needed a better response than that.
Bob One glanced back towards the rear of the RV.
“Fred Two and Fred Four are mates. They’ve traveled together on many expeditions. This one has been hard on them. The Trust separated members of the same species from the beginning.”
“I didn’t know.” Judith felt a wave of guilt, even though the Trust had made that decision long before she was born—before her father was born.
“They keep in contact over the decades by sending chemical messages back and forth. Those crates of sludge held more than materials for the Trust to sell. A Fred can encode and decode messages in the chemicals.”
Judith’s fingers on the steering wheel spelled out, “Romance on the Internet.”
Cut off from normal conversation with her schoolmates in Roswell, she’d pursued a handful of chat room buddies, some of them more friendly than she’d be willing to admit to her Daddy. It had been fun, but it was nothing like the time she’d had with Joe.
The loneliness she felt building inside her was just sympathy for the Freds, she told herself.
“When they were re-united, after so long and with our future so much in doubt, they decided to risk everything. Fred Two quickly became pregnant.”
Of course, the Bobs knew what the Fred’s were up to; the RV was too small a vessel for any real privacy. Besides, they were social scientists. The topic of other species’ mating behaviors was discussed as frequently as their escape plans.
“Sams are not gendered, exactly. Like many space-faring species, only those past the procreation phases of their biology come out on these dangerous scientific expeditions.”
“And Bobs?” She blushed to ask it, but she’d wondered.
“Oh, we’re all long past marsh fever. Our gender biology is environmentally triggered. At the proper age, we become either ‘male’ or ‘female’ as necessary, and then after the eggs are laid, we revert to our natural state.
“Freds are pre-determined dimorthics, like you humans. And I’ve been meaning to ask if your behavior was typical.”
“You and Joe touch each other frequently. It has been increasing all through the trip. Since you are female and he is male, we’ve wondered if a mating pattern had begun.”
She glared at the road ahead of her. “There’s more to humans than a little hand-holding.”
“I apologize if our speculations offended. We’re scientists after all. We came here to observe human behavior, and we’ve had far too little opportunity.”
Bob Seven walked up with the map in his hand.
“Which route are you intending to take? Highway 60 doesn’t continue straight east. Do you go north and stay on the 60 route or go south to join 380?”
Bob Four joined them. “I think 380 looks more direct to Roswell.”
Bob One pointed at Judith. “Bob Four, I think your theory is correct. Joe and Judith are only in the early stages of their mating.”
She snarled. “Would you please stop talking about me and Joe!”
They all looked her way in silence for a moment, then resumed their debate over the quickest way to get to Roswell.
She concentrated on the road as they entered Socorro. While they continued to pour over the map, she turned north on I-25. “I’m taking the northern route.”
“It’s the way Daddy went when he was in a hurry. It avoids the Lincoln County tourist areas.”
That settled the debate. The Bobs drifted away to watch TV. With no one to talk with, her eyes were aching from the effort to keep them open. Just one wink, eyes closed for a second, and it would be all over. Anger and embarrassment could only help so much.
The welcome blue and white highway Rest Stop sign was where she remembered and with no debate, she pulled to a stop.
“Everybody, go into the bedroom and stay there out of sight.” She waited until the connecting door closed, then collapsed onto the couch.