CONJUNCTIONS:67, Other Aliens (Fall 2016)
Not Without Mercy
The snow angled down fiercely out of the west, filling the parking lot and road and fields beyond. Amy stood at the office window and peered into the storm, trying to spot the headlights of Harry’s old truck coming up Sossey Road. She shut off the lamps and signs out by the pumps in order to see better. Her boss, Fareed, had called earlier and told her not to shut down the gas in case someone traveling through the storm might need fuel. “Cash, they’re out of luck,” he’d said. “But a debit card, yes. Travelers in need.” He’d laughed and so had she, but now she was worried. It was a ten-mile drive from the edge of town out to the gas station and it looked to her like there was already eight inches on the ground, no sign of letup. Drifts were forming in the road.
She took out her cell phone and dialed Harry. Three rings later, he answered. “Have you left yet?” she asked. “I was just thinking I could stay here on the cot and you could come out tomorrow morning and get me. It looks really shitty out there.”
“Too late,” said Harry. “I’m here.”
She peered again and now saw the headlights and the silhouette of falling snow they cast. “OK,” she said and hung up.
Harry pulled into the darkened parking lot. Amy put on her coat and locked the garage and office doors. She left the office light on as a gesture to lonely passersby. He stayed in the truck and rolled his window down as she approached.
“How’s Sossey?” she asked.
“Bad. We’ll have to take it slow and hope we don’t get stuck.”
She walked around to the passenger side of the truck, clasping closed the top of her coat with her right hand. The door of the truck squealed miserably and she shook her head. “How old is this rolling pile?”
“Shhh,” he said, patted the dashboard, and then lit the two cigarettes he held between his lips. She got situated in the seat, shut the door, and he handed her one.
“How are the kids?” she asked and took a long drag, closing her eyes like she was praying.
“They’re in bed, asleep. Your old man is listening for them.”
“Good,” she said, and he put the truck in gear and crept out of the parking lot.
Amy tapped the pocket of her coat on the left side. “Oh, I thought I’d left it in the office.”
“What?” He opened the window a slit to flick his ash.
“Fareed’s wife, Susan, brought by that necklace this morning that I paid her to make for Becky. It’s beautiful. Fake diamonds and a real sapphire.”
“Shit, that’s right, her birthday’s next week.”
“She’s gonna be fourteen.”
“Ain’t that a kick in the head,” said Harry, and a deafening roar pounced from above. The truck vibrated and swerved across the road. He did everything he could to keep it from going into the drainage ditch.
“What the …,” said Amy, and her words were cut off by the appearance from over the truck roof of something on fire, whistling down against the storm. In a moment it was out of sight behind the trees. Then they heard it hit, felt it, and saw an eruption of sparks shoot up in all directions. Harry managed to keep the truck on the road and swerved around the bend ahead, which brought them closer to the field that had been brimming with soybeans not three months earlier and now was home to whatever had dropped from the sky.
They saw the thing, the size of their garden shed, glowing in the distance. Harry slowed to a stop. “What do we do?” he asked.
“It doesn’t look like a plane,” said Amy.
“That’s no plane.”
“Is it a meteor?”
“Doesn’t look like that either.”
“Well, forget it,” she said. “I don’t want to find out.”
He pushed down on the gas, the wheels spun and smoke billowed out of the exhaust pipe, but they sat pretty much where they were.
“Oh, bullshit,” she said.
“Yeah.” He revved the engine and spun the tires a few more times until finally she said, “OK, that’s enough. Is that shovel in the back?”
“I’ll dig the ice out from under the tires and maybe we can grab some road.” She zipped up her coat, flipped the hood on without securing it, and got out.
Harry left the lights on and kept it running. The residual glow from the high beams faintly lit the area around the sides of the truck.
He found a flare in the bed, lit it, and set it up a few yards behind where they’d stopped. The wind had abated considerably since they’d left the station. Snow still came down but not quite as furiously. “I’ve got some sand in the back too,” he said.
Amy asked him for another cigarette. He lit it in his cupped hands for her. With the butt in the corner of her lips she went to work, chipping and scraping at the frozen slush. Harry resorted to carrying handfuls of sand and throwing them under the tires.
“Hey,” she said. “Let me shovel a little first, otherwise I’m shoveling the sand away.” She shook her head.
“You’re an idiot,” she said and they both laughed.
She dug for a while and he watched. He said, “Whatever came down in the storm has gone out. It’s just dark there now.”
“If it was a nicer night we could walk out and see,” she said. She handed him the shovel and motioned for him to take a turn. While he went at it, she peered across the field and saw nothing but snow falling and that eventually disappearing a few yards beyond into black. She thought of that field in summer with the moon shining over it.
“I’ve hit road under three tires,” Harry eventually called. “I’ll get some sand with the shovel, throw it on there, and we’ll be out of here in a minute.”
“Christ, I’m freezing,” said Amy.
They both heard a very odd sound coming up from the ditch at the side of the road. “Do you hear that?” he said.
“Yeah, what is it?”
“Like burbling, right?” she said.
They looked down into the ditch and something was crawling up the side of it.
“What is that?” he said.
“A possum or skunk?”
The thing pulled itself up the snowy embankment and stood to its full height.
“No fucking way,” he said.
“I never saw anything like it.”
“A three-foot block of scrapple?” said Harry.
“And three tentacles.”
He cocked the shovel over his shoulder, wanting to hit the thing back into the ditch, but he was stunned by the sight of it. The creature had a thousand little legs under the bottom side of that bad meat block. Those tiny legs had to scrabble like mad for it to scuttle only half a foot. It had no eyes, just two holes at seemingly random spots on the right side of its front. One was oozing a glistening drool. The hole at the top of the left side of the body, somewhat larger than the two on the other side, poorly hid sharp teeth in a lipless hole.
Amy yelled, “Get it away.”
He swung with all his might and the shovel head hit the thing with an echoing slap and thud. The blow sent it sliding down the side of the ditch. Although it sank out of sight, they could hear it still burbling, and now sputtering, choking, and giving off a whispered growl like a demon purring.
“What kind of deal was that?”
“Let’s get out of here.”
They jumped into the truck and as they shut the doors it stalled out with a shudder. She turned the key but there was only a click. Three more times she tried to start it.
“Don’t flood it,” he said.
“Will you shut the fuck up.” She tried it again.
“The battery’s brand-new,” said Harry. “I just had the whole thing checked out.”
“The lights are still on,” she said.
“That thing’s got a brain lock on us.” He opened the glove compartment and pulled out a Colt pistol. “We’ll see about this,” he said.
As Harry was climbing back onto the road, the thing was coming up out of the ditch again. Amy jumped across the console in the middle of the seats to watch from the open passenger door. The thing waved its tentacles at Harry and advanced, albeit slowly. He raised the gun, said, “Fuck you,” and fired, once, twice. Harry and Amy blinked with the noise of each round. The first bullet put a neat hole through the thing, so instead of having two maybe eye sockets it now had three. The second shot chipped a rounded corner of scrapple off the rumbling brick of alien and brought a reedy scream from the thing. It toppled over at the edge of the incline.
Harry advanced gingerly to kick it into the ditch, only 50 percent sure it was dead. As he inched closer, one of the three tentacles popped up and, quick as a blink, shot a golden seed into his forehead. It happened too fast for Amy to see it. A moment later, one flew out and hit her in the forehead as well. He staggered backward toward the cab of the pickup, and she reached for him from the passenger seat. They both knew the instant the golden seeds entered their heads, breaking a tiny hole in the skull and burying itself in the gray matter, that they were somehow transformed. The universe whirled in his mind’s eye—planets and stars and clusters, weaving in and out and around, spinning like a top. In her thoughts the ground leaped up into her through her shoes. As she reached out to touch his shoulder, the two of them turned to pink dust and blew away.
Eight minutes later, the thing was at the side of the truck. It lifted the empty clothes of Amy and Harry and inspected the pockets. In them, among other things, it found a cheap pen, the lighter, a peppermint candy stuck to the lining, a sapphire necklace. It kept the necklace and the lighter. Using its tentacles as hands, it tossed the remainder of belongings into the cab. It scuttled away through the snow, bullet wounds slowly healing beneath the action of a laving ten-inch-long sky-blue tongue that darted from the lipless hole in front. As it moved and healed, it inserted both the gun and the necklace into another large, lipless hole, only this one was in the rear. It shoved two tentacles into two face holes and moaned low through its back hole. A second later there was an audible popping noise and the pickup vanished, snow filling the place it had been.
The creature traveled on through the night, drooling, burbling, scuttling. It moved through the storm. It moved across a field, its tracks being slowly covered, and rested in a windbreak of trees. Snow swirled around it and it was cold. Its bottom half, dragged through every snowdrift on the way, was frigid, but the thousand legs never ceased moving. Tentacles wiggled and swooped through the air like escaped fire hoses, and it sharpened its concentration on the circle of blue within the circle of black that dominated its thoughts. In among the towering white oaks, the sun now up and shining in a blue sky onto pure white, the creature found a comfortable spot and fell over, face-first.
The wind swept in among the trees and rearranged the snow to cover the gray meat package. A week later it thawed out and then proceeded to lie there beneath the trees, in the weeds, a platform for insects, a curious scent for coyotes. Seasons upon seasons passed—sun shining, rain falling, snow blowing, leaves turning. Its tentacles eventually rotted off and broke down to the point where field mice could chew them and they did. Its thousand legs went to sod, like so many miniature cigars left out in a downpour. When the temperature climbed, gleaming liquid drizzled out and left a lavender crewcut moss growing across the ground. The spot was so peaceful and quiet, just the wind passing through the leaves of the old trees and the padding of squirrels along the boughs.
In the midst of a very virulent spring in which the beetles made lace of leaves and yellow flowers grew throughout the thicket, there came without warning a sudden blip of air from the creature’s back hole, and a mote of an idea was loosed into the atmosphere. That minuscule pink dot caught the wind and was up and out over the field in a moment. As insignificant as it seemed, it contained multitudes, the information for a command that upon contact with a human’s nasal lining would download into the host to be run. The virus replaced DNA with strands of alien spun sugar and initiated through mitochondrial transcendence in the host the conception of a story.
The virus instructed the subject to tell a long, involved tale in a certain manner, with a certain rhythm, tone, and character. In fact, the host had no choice but to perform the story for a listener the way its programmers intended. To begin listening to it meant that one couldn’t stop. Those who heard it became infected with it and were able to tell it exactly the same way as the initial host. When that story ran in a mind for seven days, all thoughts became irreparably corrupted and seized like a pickup engine run out of oil. The imagery of the story toppled and jumbled and choked the byways of thought till all became less and less unto nothing. Even the merest notion stalled, withered, and died.
Don’t worry, this story isn’t that story. The reason you know it isn’t that story is because in that story Becky never got her necklace. In this story, she does. Here’s how it happened.
Becky was in her midforties by then, married with three kids, all girls. Five nights after Christmas, she woke up around 2:00 a.m. to find a strange man standing at the foot of her bed, holding a lit cigarette lighter in one hand and proffering forth a sparkling necklace with the other. She cleared her eyes, believing it a dream, but there he was—a stooped old man with straggly white hair parted in the middle. He was dressed in a threadbare jacket and trousers with cigarette holes in the lap, zipper half open. She was instantly numb with fear.
The intruder leaned forward toward her from the bottom of the bed, whispering, “We are not without mercy. Take what is yours.” The third time he said it, Becky nudged her husband and said, “Tim, Tim, there’s someone in the room.”
He pretended to still be asleep, but slowly snaked his arm up the side of the nightstand and slipped his hand into the second drawer from the bottom. He got a grip on the gun inside and once it was firmly in his hand, he lunged upward, spun, and squeezed off five rounds. Three of them hit the old man and sent him sprawling against the closet door. One had taken out his eye, one shattered his chin, and the third was a bull’s-eye to the Adam’s apple. He slumped down into a sitting position, croaked, “Mercy,” fell into a dream of the peaceful spot beneath the white oaks in the soybean field where he had found the lighter and necklace the voice in his head demanded he retrieve. He fell into the lavender fuzz that spread across the ground and passed through to the next world.
The police reported the break-in at Becky and Tim’s place as a burglary. A week after the medics had come and carted the old man’s body away, a police officer who’d arrived that night to answer the 9-1-1 call Tim had made as the gun smoke cleared showed up at the front door. He had the necklace and lighter and was returning them, assuming they had been stolen by the intruder that night. Becky liked the looks of the necklace so she went along with his scenario and figured she might as well get something out of the horrible incident. Tim wasn’t home, which was good, because she was sure if she tried to lie to the officer in his presence, he’d have corrected her that the items weren’t theirs.
Before he left, the officer told her something about the “perpetrator,” as he called the burglar. “That old guy just basically disintegrated over a period of a few days. I mean a body usually sticks around till they can find relatives and bury it, but not this perp. He came apart like overcooked salmon. Just rotted away in the morgue drawer. The guys down there told me they’d never seen anything like it. Said he stank to high heaven.”
“Right,” said Becky, not really wanting to listen to descriptions of the demise of the horrid old pervert. The officer had more to say, but she wiggled her fingers at him in a casual goodbye and shut the front door before he could go on. That afternoon, she wore the necklace without the slightest idea that it had been made specifically for her years earlier. While she sat drinking a cup of coffee, staring through the sliding-glass door to the backyard, she noticed the sapphire pendant of the thing had begun to glow a deep-space indigo.
She was astonished when a blue beam shot out of the precious stone and projected a moving image on the glass door. If she could have, she’d have gotten up and run, she’d have ripped the necklace off, she’d have screamed, although the house was empty. As it was, though, she was paralyzed. All she could do was watch. The scene, through which she could see the white oak and the garden and shed, was of a kindly looking old man with white hair and a white walrus mustache. He wore khaki pants, sandals, a V-neck sweater, powder green, with a short-sleeved white shirt under it, and he could have been the nicer brother of the man who’d broken into the house.
He sat under a tree projected upon the glass just about where the real tree could be seen through it. “Greetings,” said the old man and smiled. “Call me Uncle Gribnob. I’m appearing to you in a familiar form so as not to frighten you. I’m here to offer a sort of explanation as to why your planet is being invaded and your species is being wiped out. We’re not without mercy. We thought you deserved an explanation. Just keep your peace for a few minutes while I explain and then feel free to ask questions. I’ll answer anything you like. Do you understand? You may nod if you do.”
“OK,” said the old man. “Here’s the long and short of it. We take no pleasure in wiping your kind out. It’s not usually our way. We’re doing this for the greater good of the universe. Somebody has to do it, and since we’re the most culturally and morally advanced and have the most cutting-edge technology, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to do the deed. Believe me, it’s not without the consent, no, approval, of the other civilizations. Even the reptile people were unanimously for it.
“You see, we’ve all had to deal with your kind before. And what I mean by your kind is, you have a distinctive aberration in your minds that can’t be healed or manipulated or fixed. And that one small mistake, that single knot in the works, so to speak, makes your species so dangerous. We’ve seen the results. You’re not sophisticated enough yet to be a problem to the universe at large, but who wants to let things get to that point?
“Your defective brains persist in insisting, even through a faulty mathematics that makes your error magically vanish, that the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter is an endless number. You no doubt heard of pi in school? The ratio, in reality, is simply 3, but your lack of sense dares to claim it is a number with endless decimal places. It would be funny if it weren’t for what we know peoples who have this deviant psycho structure are capable of. How can anything be endless in a limited universe? Dangerously delusional. So we’re going to ease you out of existence. Questions?”
Becky could barely follow what had been said. She thought she was having a stroke or that Tim had dropped a hit of acid into her coffee before he left for work. All she managed to get out was, “What can I do?”
“Well,” said Uncle Gribnob. His image wavered in and out. Finally he vanished from the glass, and she could see clearly into the backyard where the wind was blowing end-of-summer leaves. The necklace continued to glow and his voice continued to sound in her head. “You can do me a favor and listen to this story.”
She did and that night at dinner she told it to Tim and the kids. Becky noticed her younger daughter’s eyes shone with pleasure at the descriptions of gunplay. A few days later, the whole family shut down within a few hours of each other, and a few days after that the alien squadron drifted in for a landing at the Home Depot parking lot.
Jeffrey Ford is the author of the novels The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque, The Girl in the Glass, and The Shadow Year; and the story collections Crackpot Palace and The Drowned Life (all Morrow/HarperCollins). His latest book is the collection A Natural History of Hell (Small Beer).