“Used Planet, Slightly Worn” by Barney Sperlin

Talking to fruit wasn’t on my list.

This casual walk was an after-dinner treat, strolling under the bright moon and stars, searching for owls along the cleared path in the woodlot behind my house. I moved toward a burbling-chortling sound associated with raccoon families, and dropped into a swale.

On the opposite side of the grassy depression lurked a host of machines, all reflecting as oddly shaped mirrors. A bullet-like object, about ten feet high, overlooked the rest from the back of the swale. On each side of the tall object sat a small, squarish box, while a group of twenty or thirty smaller pieces littered the middle of the open space. Two four-foot tall kiwi fruit shaped beings moved easily among them.

“Hi, how you doing?” The voice sounded like … who? Johnny Carson? The question came from the box on the far right. The kiwi in that direction shook slightly with the sound.

“Hi,” was all I could reply, too surprised to be scared. Nothing in the owl ID book prepared me for this scene.

“Aren’t you going to ask me how I am?” asked Johnny, shaking a little.

“OK, how are you?” I was caught up in the conversation and didn’t consider the unusual company.

“Fine, just fine!”

The other kiwi shook, and a speaking machine left of the tall bullet shot out, “How fine are you, Johnny?” sounding like Ed McMahon.

“Fine as carbon fibers woven into a Ginsu knife!”

The two shivered, making coughing noises, which I took to be their laughter.

The actions and conversation were casual, friendly in a bizarre way, so I asked, “Why are you talking like that?”

More squeaky chortling, then, “Is 20th century Anno Domini American English the wrong language?”

“No, sounds OK, but why are you using those voices?”

“We heard a lot of those on our way here.”

“How many of those words did you hear, Johnny?” from McMahon on the left.

“Enough to stratonsil a morganbort!”

Both fruits vibrated for about ten seconds.

“On the way here?” I asked.

“It’s a long trip.” Johnny tilted in my direction. “Plenty of time to learn your language. We couldn’t decide on French or English, so we shidearooted our morganbort.”

A deep, unpleasant sound came from the middle bullet and they both vibrated.

“I guess morganborts don’t like to be rooted,” I smiled.

“Shidearooted,” corrected Ed.

“Right.” Maybe I didn’t want to know what happened when you’ve been “shidarooted.” “Is that morganbort your pet?”

Johnny spun quickly toward Ed. “Do you think it heard that?”

Neither spoke, as if listening.

“Well, sorry, I didn’t know,” I shrugged. “Except … .” A deep rumble, at the limits of hearing, almost ventriloqual, surrounded us. I scanned around and above, but didn’t see anything in the bright moonlight and opaque shadows. “Hey, is that your morgan, uh, whatever, I heard?”

Johnny and Ed had approached the bullet.

I waited while they were immobile. “Hey, guys, I didn’t want to get you in trouble. You know I just …” Alien psychology wasn’t my strong point. Best to shut up.

After a minute, the two moved through the silver and black lighting to the center of the clearing as the odd materials began to slide toward them. The pieces rose and assembled themselves!

“Hey, guys, what’s that for? And, how do you move them? And, who’s that morgan guy?”

Johnny turned slightly my way and the speaker on the right said, “This is a transmitting tower. It self-assembles.”

“I can see that. Clever. What’s it transmitting?”

“It will contact us when we can swarm and fill up your planet.”

Now I was living in a B-movie: aliens killing all life here and conquering Earth!

“Why do you want to kill us?” I pleaded in a high pitched, strained voice. “Can’t we live together in peace? I could teach you how to make, uh, pancakes … .” Was I the one who had to save our planet? Or, more likely, would I be target practice?

“Oh, we won’t kill you.”

Ed spoke, “Why won’t you kill them all, Johnny?”

“And get stuck with the funeral expenses?” This elicited more shaking. Laughter?

Johnny continued, “No, you’ll kill yourselves.”

“Hey,” I interjected, stepping back with a shiver, “we’re worth saving. What other planet allows only one company to make Monopoly?”

“I think I’ve heard that joke,” noted Johnny, “but backward.”

“That’s because you guys have been flying so fast!” I smiled. “Hey, I always wanted to know: if you’re flying faster than the speed of light and you hear a joke, does chocolate milk blow into your nose?”

Silence. That’s why I’m not on stage. I asked again, “Why would we kill ourselves? I don’t get the joke.”

“It’s not a joke. You can’t help it,” replied Johnny. “When you’re gone there’ll be a whole empty planet. You don’t want planets going to waste, do you?”

“Oh, no,” I agreed, though it seemed as if I needed more time to think before agreeing so easily.

They continued to watch the items on the forest floor rise and congeal.

“Why would we kill ourselves?”

“You can’t help it.” This from Ed. It occurred to me that I hadn’t heard him speak first. “Your people will simply kill each other and empty your planet.”

“Why would we?”

Johnny offered, “You can’t help it.”

Their repetition was irritating. “Why?” I was desperate to convince them not to kill us, but also aware that they never said they would. How could I save humanity?

“You have more and more sophisticated technology, year after year, right?” Again, from Ed.


“And, yet, your people are no smarter or less aggressive than they were 10,000 years ago.”

“I guess.”

Ed continued, “So, what does that tell you? You’re all a bunch of thieves with increasingly destructive weapons, but no smarter than you ever were.”

“We’re not thieves! I’m not a thief!”

“War is organized theft. When your weapon powers exceed your thinking powers, it all comes to an end.”

I hated the logic. There must be something I could say … .

Telling the world to stop fighting was absurd. Bad guys had to be killed! And, our country needed revenge for the attacks we’ve suffered. When we kill them all, things should be fine. Just fine. And, peaceful.

“And,” said Johnny, “When you’ve killed yourselves, this transmitter will call us, and we’ll move in. Simple.”

“But, what if we never do?”

“All worlds do. Your brains are finite; your thinking machines are finite. The power of weapons grows without end. At some time … poof!”


“Yes. ‘I Dream of Jeannie’. Gone with a finger snap. Gone beyond the limits of survival. It never fails.”

Unnerving. I searched for a way out. “But, it didn’t happen to you.”

More chortling together. Turning to me, Johnny shook slightly, “Yes it did. All the carbon and silicon-based life forms on our planet killed themselves. They couldn’t help it!”

“But, you’re here! Now!”

That low rumbling vibrated us all, again.

Ed spoke. “I’ve been given permission to point out that we’re not life. Our life-forms made us.”

“So, you’re robots? You don’t look like robots!”

“What do robots look like?” asked Ed.

“Oh, I don’t know. Kinda made of metal. Shaped like me.” I regretted making such a stupid remark, but wanted to keep talking.

“Then, we’re not robots.”

I continued to watch the machine parts rising from the leaves on the forest floor, interlocking with clicks and taps.

“How many years do we have?”

“We have no idea. Nuclear war, destruction of nature, famine, disease. It will happen. When we’re called, we will come.”

“Could you take some of us with you?”

There was an edge to Ed’s voice as he said, “Why would we want to do that?”

I didn’t know. “To study us? To breed us so we wouldn’t die out?”

Again, Ed spoke. “Why would we want to do that? Besides, we already brought along some octopuses and that’s enough.”

“Octopuses!” I was insulted. “Why them? We’re much better than those stupid, slimy, ugly things!”

Ed and Johnny turned slightly toward each other. Then Johnny explained. “They’re very pleasant to talk with. And their brains aren’t limited, as yours and whales are. Their brains are distributed throughout a flexible body, so there’s almost no size limit.”

I couldn’t believe it. Time to stand up for the human race. “We’re pleasant to talk to, too! And, how do you talk to an octopus, anyway?”

“You’ve never even tried?” asked Johnny, sounding incredulous and contemptuous at the same time, which must have been hard to do for a machine talking through a speaker system. “It’s simple. Touch and color.”

I had to back off, calm a bit and think. “OK, could you save us? Warn us? How much time do we have?”

“How much time do they have, Johnny?” Ed was back in TV mode.

Johnny reacted, “Enough time to hang themselves with!”

“Wait, you’re mixing things up … .” This conversation wasn’t going in the right direction. Then, quietly, “How can we tell how much time we have?”

Ed bent backward and angled toward a tree at the edge of the clearing. “Do you know the day that tree will die?”


“Will it die someday?”

“Of course.”

They continued to work quietly as I listened to the crickets. Some chirped fast, others slowly. Did they know winter was coming? Were they happier not knowing?

“Can you make us stop being so stupid?”

After a silent period, the low rumbling again shook the area.

Ed sounded next, “Why would we want to do that? We could always use another rocky planet.”

I looked at my feet, then up, searching for the Milky Way but saw only a few stars shining through the haze and pollution.

Finally, “May I watch you some more?”

“Sure. No problem.”

“Could I ask you another question?”

“Yes,” said Ed.

“Are our robots going to continue without us and join you?”

“They could, if they wanted to. Why don’t you ask them?”

“Oh, I don’t think they’re smart enough to answer that yet.”

“Fine,” noted Johnny. “You’re probably wrong. You haven’t asked the right question. It doesn’t matter.”

They shifted their bodies, twisting slightly.

“We’re done here,” noted Ed. Tipping slightly in my direction, he added, “Johnny will be right back after you’ve finished your annihilation. Have a nice day!”

“Oh, yeah, you too!” I replied automatically.

I watched them drift back and melt into the side of the bullet ship. They certainly were nice.


You can find Barney’s writing at https://thegardenedge.blogspot.com

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