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(A Langford Joh story)
by William Alan Rieser
As the Earth Ambassador to the Confederation, this is the only report I've done myself without the help of a team of re-writers. I am Langford Joh. When the Andromedans accidentally dropped in on us, it made life in the Embassy more complicated than we could have anticipated. For one thing, not one of the media writers got it right, in spite of their kinky, paisley imaginations involving an unusual contact situation. There is no resemblance molecularly between our denizens and the amorphous Andros, whose shapes and colors are in a constant state of unpredictable flux. For another, they are forced by our atmosphere to transport themselves within floating, translucent cylinders and are physically helpless to do much more than talk to us. As an agent in the hierarchy at the time, I got involved early on to determine the possibility of their being any kind of a threat to American security.
Other than their vast communicative powers, which are considerable, my investigation proved that beyond the Andros' ability to speak and influence our people, they were no more malevolent and even less dangerous than any homegrown politician. Ambassadors and technologies were soon exchanged and a new era began. Within five years, mutual trust became possible and we were on the brink of achieving the lasting friendship that we now enjoy with these beings. There was, however, an incident in those days which could have jeopardized everything. Only now am I permitted to publish the story after my retirement.
* * *
Pentagon, Washington, D.C. - March 1, 2145
An F-22 crashed outside Dallas this evening in a vacant residential lot. Pentagon spokesmen attribute the loss to the mechanical failure of its new Psylum guidance system. The pilot's name is being withheld at the family's request. Vice President Goff has called for an analysis of jet Psylum technology and its reliability in view of the Andromeda connection. Sources have confirmed that unscheduled system incursions, especially those from the Andromedan political contingency, have a tendency to undercut Psylum range detectors. A conference has been scheduled for next week to discuss the implications.
What the media failed to mention was the fact that the pilot was not recovered. He was missing and I had the case dropped on me like a barrel of manure because of my prior involvement with the Andros. Could their orbital craft have inadvertently compromised one of ours? Had there been a field conflict? Normally, they had little difficulty expressing themselves, but on this question our new friends were strangely, even provocatively, silent. To make matters worse, the analyst squad decided after a day of evidence hunting to commiserate over drinks at a local tavern. Whatever they uncovered will never be known because all six men were murdered that evening, the only witnesses being three men who were unconscious when the police arrived. They were a bartender, an alcoholic called Merkin, and a news hound named Marquis Chambers who was tracking the squad from an inside tip and anxious for a scoop.
Dallas Evening Chronicle - March 2, 2145
"In a tragedy which parallels the recent F22 incident, six air force personnel were murdered at a tavern, The Nest, in the southern district. Police have arrested Abernathy Merkin, a local resident, on suspicion of homicide, but are reluctant to provide details at this time."
Naturally I got very suspicious over this one. Could the Andros be covering up the first event with a second? I fully admit I was prejudiced against the aliens, especially when I received all the data from the tavern fiasco. In spite of that, I kept my ear to the ground for anything that would give me a solid lead. It was the Galveston tragedy that introduced a large monkey wrench in my prior thoughts. Knowing Fred Crowley of the Gulf Chronicle personally, I was able to get some details that were never publicized.
* * *
"Mr. Crowley, have you got a moment?" asked Jenny Whalen, the advertising account manager. Crowley, a senior editor at the Gulf Chronicle, nodded assent as he walked by her station. He didn't mind the interruption. She was one of his favorite sounding boards at the news-hub and was pleased to reciprocate when he could. He could see that she was belaboring a problem. Her forehead's wrinkles proclaimed as much.
"What is it Jenny? I've always got time for you."
"Did you happen to see the man I was talking to at the counter?"
"Tall, thin fellow with projector contacts and red hair. Yeah, what about him?"
"That was when he walked out. When he came in, he was your height, about five-ten, didn't have glasses or contacts and had brown hair," she whimpered, her eyes wide and white with lingering disbelief.
"Well, maybe he was crouching a little when you first looked up. You know, his knees could have been bent behind the counter. And it's easy to mistake hair coloring in these subdued office overheads. Possibly he added glasses when you weren't looking at his face." Oh c'mon Jenny, you're never this distracted. What's the real deal?
"You're probably right. But there were some other things."
"OK, shoot." Crowley realized he was trapped into listening to what was most likely an irrational thought, inspired by something she would never reveal. PMS, he reasoned chauvinistically.
"He wanted to place an ad, but he didn't follow up with any of the right questions. Nothing about plasma placement, subliminal fonts, neuro-graphics or even cost. He kept talking about one part of the hub, a bulletin from NPX. It was really odd." She tottered imperceptibly in her stealth cushions, but adjusted the shoes automatically with a controlled blink.
"OK," said Crowley relieved. That sounds more like sense. "He pumped you for information and used advertising as a ploy to pick your brain. It happens."
"He wanted to know who wrote the article. I told him I didn't know, that it could have been any of a thousand reporters." Jenny coughed.
"Of course. Which article?"
"The Merkin murder case. He was angry about it." She coughed harder.
"Angry how? Are you all right? You're perspiring."
"Like he didn't agree with it or something. Yeah, I feel a little funny," she said, wobbling slightly in front of the counter. Two other hub workers stood at the hologram copier and were attracted by her ungainly movement. "He grabbed my hand pretty tightly before he left. I thought he was...was going to crush my bones." She suddenly bent over a nearby desk and put her hands out to stop herself from falling. Crowley leaned toward her and tried to catch her as she knocked everything off the image blotter. The phone and transcriber clattered to the floor in pieces. Then she started to scream.
"Oh God! My hand. Look...at my hand. Look at it."
Crowley switched his eyes from her wild reddening face and saw the source of her hysteria. The fingernails of her right hand were gone, dissolved, and its skin underneath was beginning to fold back, sloughing off and baring her delicate, white bones in strips. Jenny passed out heavily in his arms.
Gulf Chronicle - May 7, 2145 - Galveston
In a bizarre occurrence at this hub's sales counter this morning, Jennifer Whalen, an account manager of five years, died under mysterious conditions in the presence of office personnel including Senior Editor Fred Crowley, who refused to make a statement. According to one witness, the circumstances of Ms. Whalen's premature death were extremely odd and suspicious. A stranger was seen leaving the offices just prior to her demise. Police are seeking a tall, dark-haired, thin, eye-deficient male who is wanted for questioning in the incident.
If there's one thing I know for sure about Fred Crowley it's that he is nobody's fool. That, and the fact that someone or something had a tail on Marquis Chambers, the media guy from the tavern, raised my hackles. I was intrigued by the enigma and became determined to discover the truth, be the murderers alien or otherwise. It seemed to the Bureau that national security was at stake. Yet the Andros, so uncharacteristically by human standards, made their initial offers of friendship by including methods which we could use to destroy them and their crafts, should we deem it necessary. They even gave demonstrations which were confirmed by our top scientists.
"I know what I saw," yelled Marquis at my expressionless face as I sat across the plastic laminate table from him in the cellar of our safe house. The barrio was uncharacteristically silent for a July Friday evening. Marquis' voice filled the cellar in sharp contrast to my deliberately quiet questioning. I always used a soft start, especially in tough cases.
"How could a man in Merkin's condition overpower six, big Aggie types and do what he allegedly did to them?" I asked in my least offensive tone.
"I don't know how, Mr. Joh," said Marquis with obvious anguish. "I only know that he did. I saw him get up and do it. I testified in court. What is this bullshit, anyway?"
"It just doesn't make sense, son."
"I'm not saying another thing to you. I've said all there is to say."
"You're not going anywhere," I replied with a quiet, dignified authority that people recognize instantly. "I'm trying to save your hide. There's something odd going on. The round peg won't fit in the square hole."
"Look, I'm a reporter. I know you probably think I stretched the truth to make a story. But if I lied in court about a thing like this, especially after getting copy credit, I'd be blackballed. They'd never let me work again."
"I know you didn't lie," I answered, probably with a smirk. "The tests prove you weren't drunk. In fact, I tend to believe your story, that you were knocked down in the struggle, that before you became unconscious you actually witnessed something and dialed the cops."
"Then what? What?" asked Marquis, decreasing his shrill.
"It is your interpretation that doesn't gel. Do you know what misdirection is?"
"Yeah. Magician stuff. Supposed to make you look at one hand while the other one is actually doing something."
"That's right. I think you may have been misdirected. In fact, it worries me. Of course, that implies a third party, a master manipulator. In spite of our sophisticated detection equipment, I haven't got a decent clue."
"Sidetracked for ten whole minutes. No way. Merkin was all over the place, fighting off all six of them. I saw it all and my eyes are 20/20, blinking out or not. No weapons involved. He just gutted them one by one with his hand, like I said in court. They didn't have a chance against him, no matter how frail he looks. There was no third person and I can't explain it."
"Merkin's got arthritis. He couldn't have done it. Besides that, he had so much alcohol in his body that his equilibrium was out of control. He's got a bad heart too. The police said he couldn't stand when they arrived."
"When I saw him, he was standing. I couldn't mistake his face, not when the son of bitch cold-cocked me close and personal."
"I'll let you know one of my little discoveries. Merkin, when the police arrived, was found totally out of it. He lay behind the bar, under the wounded bartender who was also unconscious. The man you saw only looked like him."
"I see," responded Marquis with hugely diminished bravado. "I suppose that is possible, but I can't answer for it. What can I do to help?"
"As a reporter, you must be up to date on our new relationship with the Andros, our first contact with other life forms."
"Yes. It makes for good copy, so I keep myself informed."
"Then you probably know that these aliens, after learning how to speak English, can hardly shut up. Yet, about the F-22 and your travail at The Nest, they are mum. Not a comment."
"That's what I've heard."
"What you haven't heard is the fact they have a natural distrust of authority figures. It seems they understand our politics as well as we do. We know that they confide important information to waiters, taxi drivers and maids, data of a profound nature that they refuse to reveal to people like ambassadors. In other words, in their culture, slaves are trusted, royalty is not. Me, being an authority figure, could never get anything useful out of them. I've always had to use the indirect approach by manipulating people. You, a reporter, on the other hand...."
"Am expendable. A slave. Hardly a threat. I understand. But why the alien connection?"
I put a cardboard box on the table. Marquis examined the contents when I removed the taped lid. The box was filled with feathers, blood, hydraulic tubes, and some very weird mechanical fasteners. They were not of Earth origin.
"Some kind of robot bird," commented Marquis. "I don't know. What is it?"
"What it was," I replied, "is a puzzle. A synergetic organism. A drug flow mechanism covered with living tissue like the ones from Andromeda, except this one is not registered. That makes it unfriendly. Hardly an everyday occurrence."
"So," quivered Marquis, "you want me to get them to identify it?"
"It was accidentally crushed by a truck that slammed into a tree."
"The tree was just outside your house, by the front porch."
"Huh? How? When?"
"Two days ago. We had you under observation at the time. On film as a matter of fact. So is this. It was following you, tracking your whereabouts when it got blindsided by the truck."
"When do I start?" said Marquis with much less antagonism.
* * *
The collector approached Merkin's barred residence. He released a small, syngt toward the lamppost. Slowly the device dimmed the light, not too quickly for detection, and windows were grayed out along the entire cell wall.
He passed molecularly through the cement, preferring not to use the portal again so soon after his recent transport. Temporal grease left evidence. Worse, the pilot's skin was sluggish in complying with the penetration. When the collector finally permeated, he saw Merkin sleeping on a cot, unalert to his presence. The human in the opposite cell was awake and saw him, but sat silent and mesmerized. As he ripped Merkin's head off and threw it in the sink, he smiled at the frightened witness.
"You like to watch, don't you. A gift, then. Watch forever." He stuck his work tendril out maliciously at the man who was paralyzed at the sight of its length. It brightened from pink to white and jumped across the space between the cells to touch the cowering prisoner's eyelids. He then left the way he came after pulling the human's lids off and puncturing the corneas amidst bellowing cries of pain and terror. The syngt was recovered and the light resumed its illumination of the jail. The collector chose the nearest sewer to make his departure.
Houston Daily June 10, 2145
Police are mystified at the horrible murder and decapitation of Abernathy Merkin in his cell at the 23rd Precinct. No suspects were announced. Confusing the issue is the statement of an injured eyewitness, a prisoner across from Merkin's cell, who claimed to this reporter that Satan appeared from the air and blinded him. Police are withholding the name of the witness pending further investigation and the convict's recuperation. Local residents have banded together in front of the precinct in a protest against what they are calling police brutality. Many believe that Merkin was killed as payback for his conviction in the murder of six military personnel.
* * *
Having that travesty occur on my watch, I opted for massive coverage. I called in everyone I knew that was tops. Long-held favors were cashed in and a few new ones created by me. There had to be a resolution. I remember a consultaion with an Octagon liaison officer.
"We cannot identify the tube material," said the man. "Your labs will have no better luck than ours for the simple reason that there are unknown elements in its composition. But it is definitely not Andromedan. They have no knowledge of deuterium, as you know. These fasteners are 30% deuterium."
"So you're saying it's another alien?" I asked.
"I'm merely telling you what we found."
"What do you think?"
"They don't pay me to think. I'm a courier, that's all. Message delivered. Do you have a response?"
"How were the six soldiers related?"
"That's another question. This is supposed to be quid pro quo."
"The kid's innocent enough. He called the police to the tavern when the bartender was knocked unconscious. Then he got knocked out. Now the Merkin business takes on new importance, especially after the jail fiasco."
"We need to know about that."
"Here," I replied. "It's a copy of my report. No evidence at all, except for the witness, and he'll be out of it for a long time."
"The soldiers participated in the F-22 crash recovery. They were the first on the scene. For some reason, they partied that night or maybe felt the need to drink it off as a group because of what they found. Whatever they discovered, it wasn't reported and they left no evidence or notes."
"The pilot was not found, true?"
"True," replied the liaison officer.
"I don't have anything else to trade."
"There was a conflict on the scope," offered the man helpfully.
"For the F-22? You mean it was hit by another craft?"
"Not a craft. Something small. The pilot didn't notice it, according to the backup flight recorder. Fifteen minutes later he went down."
"And he disappeared."
"That's about the size of it, except for the tavern glands."
"What are you talking about?" I asked.
"The gland removals! Don't you know about that?"
"Please educate me."
"The pineals. All six men had their pineal glands cut out of their foreheads."
I shuddered involuntarily and paused to reflect on what he said. When my aides looked up at me, we stared at each other with frowning expressions. Simultaneously, all of us pronounced the same word: "Merkin!" One ran out of the room to get to the morgue. The other went to Marquis Chambers' hideout while I hurriedly picked up the phone to dial Precinct 23.
* * *
Marquis accompanied the Andromedan to a corner hot dog stand, promising to explain the meaning of al fresco dining in return for a slight favor. When he was certain the alien was properly satisfied with the intricacies of mustard, onions, and El Paso relish, he popped the question: "Can you identify this?" he asked, showing the ambassador the syngt parts from my box.
The ambassador digested his first hot dog and peered benevolently into the curious box in Marquis' hands. "What kind of trick is this?" he stammered. Marquis observed the alien physique begin to alter, shake, and sparkle. "You are not royalty! How can a slave know of this?"
"I don't know of it, beyond the fact that it appears to be a synergetic organism. That's why I asked you for a favor. What is it? Who made it?"
In the short time that Marquis had interfaced with Andromedans, he learned of their surpassing poise and stoic mannerisms. Now, faced with the syngt, the ambassador's rainbow-colored epidermis clouded to dark blue within its tube. His body began to alternately melt and freeze, tottering wildly in all directions. He fell back against a lamppost and shattered it. A stop sign crumbled in his synapse talons -- the Andros rarely used mental claws -- as he temporarily gripped it for support. The alien porously spat a red permeable something into the gutter and raised his amoebic head to look at Marquis. "Pim!" he said with clear, undisguised disgust.
"And who is Pim?" asked Marquis excitedly.
The alien paused and consulted a tendril chronograph. He had been trapped by a clever slave into granting a favor. He must comply or be recalled and degassed.
"My enemy...and yours," he said, pointing directly at Marquis' forehead. Suddenly, the ambassador whirled around and hailed a slowing taxi. Marquis was not invited. He comforted himself with the knowledge that his body scanners and tapes probably caught everything useful for the analysts.
* * *
I slammed the phone down. Merkin's lonely head also happened to have been liberated of its pineal gland. The pattern was established. The motive, if it could be ascertained, would have to come from Marquis' research. The murderer was another problem altogether. Nevertheless, things were beginning to coalesce. Based on the existing evidence, I merely had to find someone who savored human pineal glands for some unearthly reason.
* * *
The collector pulled the microcube out of his eye socket and made a decision. It was hopeless for him to walk around using the pilot's features. It made no sense to attract a crowd, especially since Rakipe, his syngt, had a lead. Better to wait until he obtained useful data. He opened his prized container and examined the incomplete collection again. Only two were fresh, the pilot's and Merkin's. "It won't be long now," he said to the dried, cone-shaped, pea-sized strands. "Soon you will sing with the others and we can leave this place." Leisurely, he stroked his fingers along the sewer's wall, picking up a supply of silica particles for material restoration and conversion. Sooner or later, the human's chemicals would signal him and beckon. It was just a matter of sensitivity.
* * *
"You saw the Galveston hub article and obituary," I said. "The connection is the method of death, in spite of the fact that the pineal was left intact in the woman. The same effect was seen on two of the soldiers, skin peeled back and falling off the bones. Forehead wounds on the males were precise. That kind of skull penetration is unusual. Never seen it before. Neither have our medical experts."
"Strange," commented Gus, an aide. "But it wasn't surgical, according to forensics."
"Hopeless as it seems, we have managed to extract a chemical from the alien bird organism, totally new but very suggestive."
"Very much like a derivative of a specific human hormone."
"Don't tell me."
"Exactly. One produced solely by the pineal gland. We have a classified way of scanning for it, now that we know what to look for."
"So where do we go from here?"
"My scan expert has already confirmed a trace at Chambers' house. Another synergetic, we think, but they're unable to isolate it just yet. Whatever it is, we're certain it will make its way to the hideout, probably through your men. As we thought, it is going to pursue Marquis until it finds him."
"That's an Andros trait. So, do you want us to evacuate or switch?"
"Neither. The cars, routes, anything could already be at risk. We think its better to have bait, anyway." Another assistant answered a phone.
"Confirmed," he said, interrupting my thoughts. "Squad has retrieved a biological under Chambers' porch. A rat-like thing. Same symptoms as the bird. It tangled with an alley cat apparently."
"So, we know it's close," stated Gus. "What have we got to stop it?"
"Langley thinks they've found a repellant," I revealed with candor. "Sent them a piece of the synergetic and they worked overtime to find something. The courier is bringing it on the shuttle. Macefield, the liaison, is at NIPPON-NASA for the relay."
"I hope it's in time. The culprit could be closer than we think."
"We've put Chambers in the bubble."
"He agreed to that? Does he know what could happen?"
"After Merkin, he's willing to try anything."
* * *
Rapike joined the collector on the roof of the apartment building. Chambers was located below, but something else bothered him. His prey was surrounded by an energy field. It was unfamiliar, not in his database. Perhaps he should test the field before entering it. He cautioned Rapike before giving the order, warning the syngt not to finish the coup no matter what, else he would disassemble him later. Rapike agreed to obey its programming and descended the elevator shaft toward the apartment.
"Incoming," whispered the scanner technician. He switched the apartment kliegs to infra-blue. They were patient men, the Squad, and detected the incredible entrance of the synergetic. It crept through the ceiling, seemingly without bursting any sheet steel. Chambers slept under heavy sedation, else the field might induce pressure sickness. It was a quasi-static situation, but the best the Squad could do until the repellant arrived. Once the syngt touched the shield, they were bound to learn something from the thousands of probes attached to its generator.
Downstairs, Macefield arrived carrying the repellant. I was there to greet him and transfer it to the Squad. Four bodyguards surrounded me as I entered the elevator, ready for anything. On the 31st floor, we exited and met one of Squad leaders. The package was handed over and rushed down the hallway.
Rakipe ignored all but the bubble. It stepped slowly into the field and transmitted a message to the roof. The field was harmless. It stepped out of the bubble, just as gunshots erupted above. The Squad had surrounded the collector and were attempting to direct him away from the apartment. Bullets, they discovered, were useless, passing futilely through the visitor's phasing body, now completely shed of the pilot's putrefied skin. He pulsed between the dimensions feeling serene and powerful.
Anticipating the onslaught, the squad leader opened the repellant canister, already mated to the pressure gun. He released the safety and pointed it at the alien. The man fired it and watched with glee as the synergetic splattered against the plaster wall. Fur, tubes, bolts, and green liquid fell to the carpet in the eerie blue lights that surrealised the apartment. I wasn't all that gleeful myself. After all, this was the third wrecked organism.
Then the ceiling split open as Pim angrily came to claim his overlengthy coup inside the human's paltry bubble. For the record, so that there could be no mistake, he triggered the translator built into his key appendage. The Squad and I stood helplessly by as we listened.
"Do not bother yourselves. I have affected your ability to remember. You will forget me soon, but first I want you to witness my coup." He walked into the bubble and cast his shadow over the sleeping form of Marquis Chambers. The Squad leader tried to fire the repellant into the bubble, knowing it might cause a rupture, but he was unable to move his finger muscles or any other part of his body. It was the same with us all. Then, just as hope seemed dimmest, a yellow light completely suffused the room. Pim was surprisingly forced into stillness as another's voice penetrated his translator.
"For permitting Rapike to count coup under the eyes of a human witness, you are charged. For failing to edge cut the problem by the rules of continuum limitation, you are condemned."
Pim began to fade and dissipate before everyone's vision. In a moment, he was ionized in the scanner's detectors and gone from the scopes. Our suspended muscles returned to normal and we looked at each other, bewildered by the event.
"A referee of some kind, I suppose," I offered with reflection. We all looked at Marquis, who had slept peacefully through the entire episode. "Looks like he missed a good story." I directed the Squad to retrieve the remnants of the synergetic for analysis.
"You heard what came through," I shouted. "Under the rules of continuum limitation. Travel between dimensions. A game of edge cutting, and we are its blades of overhanging grass." We never did find out who they were, only that the Andros were mortally afraid of them. With reflection, I have decided that we were extremely lucky.
Story © 2002 by William Alan Rieser firstname.lastname@example.org
Illustration © 2002 by Matt Newman email@example.com
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