CONJUNCTIONS:67, Other Aliens (Fall 2016)
“The thing is, you can’t tell the difference. At least not from the outside. Because of interbreeding and genetic manipulation.”
“What are you saying now?”
“It’s a moral difference. That and perception. They have sharp ears, for one thing. Hear things from far away. Walk past a house from the outside, just along the garden walk, hear what people are saying around the corners. Hear people in their bedrooms.”
“That’s quite funny, the thing you do.”
“Using the same word in different ways so close together. ‘From the outside.’ ‘Difference.’ ‘Walk.’”
“That’s what I meant,” he said. “They’re very sensitive.”
By “garden walk” he meant the crazy paving next to the stone wall, chest-high. There were hollyhocks. By “around the corners,” he meant because the bedroom faced the street. The stone wall was in the back. You got to it across the meadow through the butter and eggs.
“Please go on.”
“Because they are reptilian originally, they have a nictitating membrane. Some of them do. It’s very quick. It slides across. Yellowish, I suppose.”
Or else he meant because the bedroom was on the first floor, the windowsill high above the ground. The house itself was yellow stucco with a tile roof.
“I’m telling you. It was in the book. Long tongues. They smell through their tongues.”
Roses among the hollyhocks around a corner of the wall.
“And you can’t figure out by looking?”
“What do you mean? They can see through walls.”
“I mean by looking at them.”
“Not anymore. It’s been too long. They could be you or I. Thirty-six hundred years is their planet’s orbit, and now the first ones have assimilated. But guess what?” he said. “They’re coming back.”
An older man, he stood by the window, looking out onto the street. Gauze curtains. The other one lay on his back across the saffron bedspread. Tufted chenille. He smiled. “Go on,” he said, “pull it again. Pull it harder.”
“I’m telling you, they started everything. This was in Mesopotamia. Before that we were just living in caves. I’m speaking of the wheel, written languages, agriculture. They were technologically advanced. They’d have to be, coming from outer space. But not just that. They could see the whole past, the whole future, the whole world laid out. Worlds beyond worlds. Like it was written in a book.”
The older man’s name was Roland Styce. He had been born in Wales. He was a big man, unshaven. For seven years his psychiatrist had been prescribing him a combination of serotonin inhibitors to treat his symptoms, most recently fluoxetine, with an antipsychotic (Zyprexa) to stabilize his moods. Sometimes, though, he tried to do without. As now, for example. Since his midtwenties he had worked as a teller in a bank. He was forty-seven.
The younger man lay propped up on his elbows. He had less time behind him. And even barring any sort of cataclysmic interruption, he had less in front of him as well. Soon, he would work another tattoo into the pattern on the inside of his left arm, an image taken from a tarot deck. He would spend six years in jail. Soon after, he’d be dead.
Even excepting some sort of violent interruption, he would be dead in nine years’ time. He would die in the hospital, in the city of Leeds, not a hundred kilometers from the stucco house. Leeds is in the center of the United Kingdom. Above it, in the night sky, there is no trace of the twelfth planet as it approaches perihelion. You can scarcely see the stars.
“What’s the problem then? Maybe they can help us sort out some of this mess.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” said Roland Styce. “They don’t care anything about us. They’re very cruel.”
Despite his years of service to the Midland Trust, he had never once been promoted, because of his low intellect. His flesh had a pasty look to it. His hands were large and fat, with fingers like moist rolls of uncooked dough, painted with egg white, dusted with red spots of pepper, and then sprinkled unaccountably with hair, according to the recipe of some deranged pastry chef. They were a masturbator’s hands. No one touched them voluntarily to say hello: his superiors in the bank (he had no inferiors) avoided greeting him, preferring instead to touch him vaguely on the shoulder, which, though disgusting in its own right, a wobbly pudding of tufted flesh, at least had the advantage of being clothed. No one had liked him in a long time.
He was the kind of man who said most things twice. “We’re like nothing to them. Every single one of us could die.”
“I don’t get that,” said the younger man. “You said we were all mixed in now. Interbred for two hundred generations …”
“They don’t care about themselves!” Styce interrupted. “They’re cannibals on Niburu. That’s their home planet. We were nothing but slaves to them, slaves to mine gold, which they used to make heat and light. Most of them were eight feet tall. We worshipped them as gods. You can see in those Sumerian bas-reliefs in the British Museum.
“I read about it in a book called The Twelfth Planet,” he continued after a pause.
The younger man grimaced, then stretched out his jaw and snapped his teeth together. Yellow and discolored, they made a satisfying snap. In nine years, barring any sort of incomprehensible calamity, he would die of an intracranial neoplasm in the city of Leeds. “So we’ll have to fight them then,” he said. “We’re not as helpless this time around.”
“Perhaps not. They do have an advantage, though.”
“They can read minds.”
All day he’d been afraid. That morning he had woken as if under a dim, inchoate nebula of doubt, riven with anxiety as if by spears of light. “The Twelfth Planet,” he had muttered to himself as he had blundered out of bed into his slippers: this mania of his, gathering now, was a way of struggling against these feelings by a process of deflection, the way you might squeeze your thumb with a nutcracker as a cure for seasickness.
The younger man saw nothing of this. He saw an older fellow, overweight, standing by the window, just beginning to unbutton his shirt. He scarcely listened when the fellow spoke: “The light is dim where they are. Most of the time, except for the foci of the ellipse, you see, they don’t have a setting or a rising sun. They seed their atmosphere with molecules of gold, which reflect light from the rifts in their own oceans, the volcanic activity there. The light is always dim, so they don’t sleep.”
“What are you, an astronomer then?”
“No, I work at the Royal Bank of Scotland. I’m the chief teller there in town,” which was a lie.
“That’s all right,” said the younger man.
Roland Styce turned toward him. “There is one advantage, though. A blind spot, if you will.”
“It’s because of the way they reproduce in an abnormal way. Because of their reptilian nature, and the way they go into a stasis without sleeping. They don’t understand anything about love. You know, what we call love. It’s like a blind spot. It enrages them.”
“Well, that’s all right then.”
The garden wall was low, about five feet, and faced with yellow stone. Beyond it, and beyond the raised beds, the grass spread flat and featureless to the back steps, like a lava field abraded into greenness under the acid rain.
The door was locked and barred. Solid oak, imported from Poland. On the other side, a tufted Oriental carpet ran the length of the hall, various living rooms on either side. Mr. Styce had inherited the house from his mother in 2016. She had died of an aneurysm that same summer.
Along the way down the corridor, you smelled a number of competing fragrances, more intense at intervals if you licked your lips. Sawdust. Lemon furniture polish. Then you came past the kitchen’s open door, the sealed cabinets full of sealed jars of Indian chutneys and pickles. A bowl of onions. Some wilted flowers. The stair rose up and turned a corner to the first floor. A skylight shone west above the landing, and the air was pricked with motes of gold.
These people, these creatures, sealed up like jars or cans, struggling to see or know or understand even a little bit, how could you not open them and spill them out? Caught in a spacial moment, how could you not twist them, stretch them out beyond their capabilities? Some broke open and rose up higher and higher until you could see the world and time and space spread away.
Yet up there, behind that closed door, two men embraced on a yellow bed.
Paul Park’s most recent books are All Those Vanished Engines (Tor) and Other Stories (PSJ). He teaches writing at Williams College.