ROBERT POPE

 

AFTER THE LANDING

 

by Robert Pope

  

 

“Please, call me Rudy. I’m glad to be here today to fill you in on what is arguably our first encounter with an alien life form. It’s an exciting time, as well as a dangerous time. What you see on the monitor behind me is one of the few photographs of the creature’s face, blurry as it is, though any photo can only hope to produce what amounts to a rough sketch. Everyone who sees one describes it a little differently. In fact, the very nature of the creature is metamorphosis, shape shifting, the rules and parameters of which are only vaguely understood at this time.”

In the early hours of the morning, Tyrek Brown woke to the gyrations of the cell phone on his bedside table. The night before, he turned off the ringer and set it on a box of tissues to muffle the sound, but it had vibrated off the tissue box onto the table and rattled on the thin metal surface. China had to be at the research lab by 7:00 in the morning and she had warned him about waking her. He heard her cussing as he caught the third rattle and shoved it and his head under the pillow.

“Brown,” he whispered, receiving the urgent outline and rudiments of the scene from his partner Jersey Franks. He knew the address as well as any in the city.

He sat up, wiped at his face, yawned, and stood stretching beside the bed in the dark, ignoring the soft imprecations of his wife. He kept required clothing close to the bed on an exaggeratedly large chair: clean, folded undershirt perched atop a blue shirt hung on the chair back and a pair of pants folded on the seat, the belt threaded through loops with the small leather holster at the back. Under the pants, dark socks; under the chair, black shoes with unnaturally thick soles. It took ten minutes to complete the operation, which included grabbing keys from the top of the dresser without jangling, locating the smallest key, and unlocking the top drawer of his dresser in which he kept the loaded snub Colt .38 he had carried for the past ten years. He slid it in the holster at the small of his back and in another five minutes sat in his Crown Victoria sipping a cup of black coffee and backing out in the dark. He turned on the hood light to check the assault rifle on his door, flipped it off and drove the dark city to the scene of the crime.

He kept a sharp eye out, turning his scanner beam onto back alleys, commercial buildings, and residential houses until he turned onto the dingy street in what had once been a decent blue collar neighborhood when there were decent blue collar jobs. Two cruisers sat in the drive, one with headlights on. He parked at the curb and passed through a group of neighbors talking with a couple of uniformed officers taking notes and ducked under the crime scene tape into the bare yard to the open door where Jersey Franks, in his eternally loose brown suit, waited, nodding without words. Two more uniforms came down the stairs, the one in front carrying a small silver camera; he shook his head, his lower lip out to indicate he found nothing upstairs. Franks led Brown into the yellow kitchen with a breakfast nook at the back where sat an old couple as if for breakfast, empty plates and utensils in front of them, napkins, cups and saucers, juice glasses. The only discrepancy was they both had a relatively neat hole in the head.

The old lady had her narrow back to them. Short, white-haired, wearing a flowered housecoat, she slumped forward, her forehead in her empty plate, her eyes closed as if asleep. The oddly circular hole in the pink scalp of the back of her head was visible through her matted hair, with a burn ring and a little blood at the edges. On her right, the heavy man in his undershirt and boxer shorts leaned sideways in the corner of the bench along that wall, a small, similarly clean hole in his temple. His mouth and eyes were wide open, eyes of translucent blueness, and he had a tonsure of gray above his ears.

On an identical bench on the opposite side of the table from him sat a large, worn black book with faded gold lettering: Holy Bible.

“Say hello to Mitch and Sally Howard,” Franks told him.

Franks indicated blood and tissue on plates, table, and the wall beside Mitch. A big man himself, Franks was older than Brown by a decade, thick and slow-moving, but with good eyes for a scene. “Neighbors?” Brown asked him.

Franks nodded. “Heard noise. Called it in.”

They stood in silence taking in the scene.

“As far as I know, nothing has been touched,” Franks told him.

Brown took a small notebook from his jacket, taking notes on graph paper as he walked around the table, making impromptu sketches before doing a quick walk-through. The living room was orderly, one brown couch pillow on the floor. Upstairs, in the larger bedroom, it appeared the couple had been rousted from bed without struggle. They were taken downstairs or went themselves to check out sounds, together or one at a time, he couldn’t be sure. He poked his head in a small second bedroom and a smaller sewing room.

When he came back to the kitchen and opened the basement door, a large gray-and-black cat ran into the room. Franks scooped it up before it could get to the table and held the cat on one arm, scratching its head as he inspected it for irregularities. He offered it to Brown, but when he shook his head, a uniform took it out to the car, hanging placidly over his arm.

“Doesn’t seem upset,” Franks said.

Brown nodded.

Franks said, “Someone got them down here, or they came willingly. Don’t appear to have been manhandled, dragged, whatever. Someone made them sit at the table, one guy, two maybe. Table set like this before or after they sat. Old folks could have kept the table set, but the plates are too far from the edge, forks and spoons on the wrong side. Probably not a woman. One shot each, back of the head for her, side of the head for him.”

They exchanged knowing glances. “Slugs?” Brown asked without hope.

Franks shook his head, then pointed at a hole in the wall opposite the woman, and another in the gore beside the man’s head. “Jesus,” said Brown.

Franks nodded. “You see what you see on the table. The old man flopped here, then got pushed against that wall, so he looked more like he had been sitting up. No defensives, nothing. We’ll check for prints, but I’d be surprised, set-up like this. Home invasion, nothing disturbed? No drawers riffled, just this. Nothing missing we know about.”

He brushed cat fur from his jacket. “Must have closed the cat in the basement to keep it out of the way.”

Brown nodded. “Medical examiner?”

“On the way.” Franks looked wearied. “I been through here pretty thoroughly. You go ahead, look it over.” He stared at the scene, his lower lip jutting.

Brown said, “I, for one, do not like this much.”

“Nor do I,” said Franks.

At that moment, the medical examiner came through the front door and hurried into the kitchen, paying them no attention, already snapping on his latex—Martin Speck, late thirties, the kind of a man you wouldn’t notice on the street: thin brown hair, complicated glass warping in his tortoise shell glasses, close-clipped beard, rumpled shirt with a pale blue pin stripe, serviceable pants, and black athletic shoes. He worked over the woman a while and then leaned over the dead man, one knee on the bench. He turned to them holding up an odd-looking pistol on one finger.

“You’re going to have to send those pants to the laundry.” Brown pointed out the stain.

“Motherfucker,” Speck said. “I got these pants yesterday.”

“Where’d you get them, Martin?” asked Brown. “Salvation Army?”

Speck grabbed his crotch. “Bite me,” he mouthed, so the uniforms wouldn’t hear.

“Where the hell did you find that thing?” Franks asked.

“Stuck between the bench and the wall. Handgrip up, barrel down.”

Franks leaned in to look. He took a sniff.

“I’ve seen a couple,” Brown said, “collector’s items—Nambu, 8mm cartridges, magazine loaded. Japanese military issue. The Edsel of side arms.”

“Loaded, but I don’t believe it’s been fired,” Speck said. “More likely stuck there by the deceased in case he needed it.”

Franks set his hands on his hips. “Looks like he needed it.”

Speck nodded. “Indeed it does. Would one of you gentlemen like to bag it?”

Franks took the gun while Brown looked in the crevice between the back of the bench and the wall, then went to the bench opposite, where no such crack existed. He picked up the Bible, thumbed through it.

“In point of fact,” the medical examiner said, “I doubt the wounds were made by a bullet, but you might have guessed that already. Point of entry is perfectly round, same as the exit wound, clean as a whistle. If it wasn’t for expansion spreading of brain matter, you could blow through the entry hole and make a pinwheel turn on the other side.”

“I’ll take your word,” Franks said.

Speck crossed his thin arms across his belly, then raised one hand to his chin, a finger across his lips. He held the pose a moment, staring at the ceiling until Franks looked up.

“I would guess,” the medical examiner said, “if I had to guess, this was some kind of laser weapon.” He shook his head slightly and gazed at both of them. “I know nothing of such weapons—do either of you?”

Both men looked down.

“Such a weapon is the only thing that accounts for the lack of slugs and the nature of the wound. Also for the fact the deceased made no effort to retrieve the weapon he may or may not have secreted, as I say, between the bench and the wall. It was right there. Might have been difficult to retrieve. He couldn’t just stick his hand down in the crevice. He would have had to take the butt between his fingers to pry it out. Might have made a racket.”

He twiddled two fingers on his lower lip. “I wonder why someone with such advanced weaponry might want to shoot this old couple.”

The medical examiner grinned at them for too long.

“I’m out of my depth,” he said. “I was speculating.” He turned to the table and leaned over the woman a while, mumbling. “Maybe they knew something or had something, or maybe just chance. Who knows, maybe they wanted the house, for some reason—something hidden on the property? Convenient hideout? That’s your field. I’m just here to tell you what I see.”

He turned and smiled brightly, holding up one bloody finger. “I’ll take care of the documents while you two figure out the logistics.”

He giggled as he went to the sink to wash his hands.

After the bodies had been removed and the neighbors dispersed, Franks and Brown took another look at the kitchen. Blood spattered table and walls, the bench on which the old man died. The seat had been bolted down but Franks worked a screwdriver to remove the seat—a disappointment. He saw nothing inside but the dingy tile over which the bench had been set.

Brown sat in a wooden chair in the middle of the kitchen, drinking a cup of coffee someone brought him, already growing cold.

“Ideas?” Franks asked.

“A couple.”

He thought for several minutes before he got up and went to the bench opposite the one Franks dismantled. He tossed the Bible to Franks, who caught it against his chest, then grabbed the seat and gave a tug. With a loud crack the seat-lid went up.

Brown looked into the dark interior of the seat.

“Anything in there?” Brown asked.

“It looks like Halloween decorations. Those crepe skeletons you hang from the ceiling. I hesitate to touch them.”

Franks peered around him, a hand on Brown’s shoulder. Brown backed away so Franks could have a closer look. Then Franks backed away, taking his gun from the small of his back. The skeletons rose up out of the bench, almost to the ceiling, more skeletal than actual skeletons, trembling as they rose. The hollows of their eyes—if eyes they were—trained on them as they raised the long fingers on the ends of long arms, each holding an egg-shaped object.

Brown had already fled the room, but as he ran out the front door, into weak morning light, he looked back to see Franks following. His eyes suddenly opened wide and his hands went up in the air before he fell. Brown smelled burning flesh as he galloped across the yard and leaped in his car. As he started the engine, he saw the creatures in the doorway, then they closed the door.

He hesitated a moment before calling it in, Code X. He took the assault weapon from the door and got out. He opened his trunk and suited up, strapping on his helmet, right there in the street. Before he could head in the house, the black van pulled up and five troopers piled out.

“You two, around left, there’s a side door there. You two, right, out back. Smith, follow me. Shoot anything, any movement. They got Franks. These things aren’t human, and neither are their weapons.”

They crept quickly across the yard. Already he could hear firing on the left.

He and Smith broke in the front door, but Franks was already gone. “Son of a bitch,” he said. “Search the house.”

He knew it was too late, but they had to carry through. He went out the side door, around back, and met up with the two he had sent right. Of those he sent left, he found only the weapons, nothing else. He saw the sparkle of the vehicle slide past him in the sky.

He stood in the back yard, blasting the empty morning sky. Beside him two others did the same, until there was nothing more to fire. He’d have to alert the force, the papers, with photos of Franks and the other two, with orders to shoot on sight.

“Some of you will be dealing with this on a first-hand basis, some have already had the pleasure of an encounter with these bastards. We’ve lost a few good men who didn’t know enough to save their own lives. Today we have the benefit of Professor Lips’ study so listen up! Shut the hell up and pay a little goddamned attention like your life depends on it! Professor Lips, if you can keep your language down to the level of the layman, we are ready to hear you out.”

“Please, call me Rudy. I’m glad to be here today to fill you in on what is arguably our first encounter with an alien life form. It’s an exciting time, as well as a dangerous time. What you see on the monitor behind me is one of the few photographs of the creature’s face, blurry as it is, though any photo can only hope to produce what amounts to a rough sketch. Everyone who sees one describes it a little differently. In fact, the very nature of the creature is metamorphosis, shape shifting, the rules and parameters of which are only vaguely understood at this time.

“Here you see the base structural underpinning of the two specimens that have come to my dissecting table. The truth is the specimens lose a dominant quality they possess in life, a constant vibrational energy that allows subtle shifts not only in appearance but in substance. To one observer—this is what amounts to a police sketch—it presented a metallic surface, a bit like an android, with the black eyeholes you see. And in this sketch you see the more elongated and skeletal physiognomy.

“This is the most disturbing aspect of the creatures. They have an ability to morph into a remarkably human appearance. Inexact, mind you, but close. Here you have your own officer Franks and beside him the morphed image of the creature about two seconds before it was fried. Looks like Franks, no? But not like Franks, lacking the animating spirit—an imitation in low affect. Dreadful really, but easily mistaken for Officer Franks, a depressed Franks.

“I understand how difficult this may be for some of you. And how angry you might become, but remember, we have no earthly idea of the intelligence of these things—they might have the mind of an insect or the mind of a mad genius. We simply don’t know.”

A black, long-haired dachshund trotted down the walk dragging three feet of dirty, tattered rope. Its fur was matted, snarled with burrs, and the dog possessed of the look of one whose destination was elsewhere, the stars. The eleven-year-old girl’s heart went out to it completely.

When she called “Doggie” and ran toward it, her mother reached to stop her—though the gesture had no effect as she was watching from behind the kitchen window. She wiped soap suds off her hand and hurried to the front door.

“Don’t touch him, honey,” she said quietly. But Ginny already had him in her arms, carrying him to the porch. It made Carla a little sick to see the ragged dog in her daughter’s arms. Ginny looked so skinny in her red shorts and the black shirt with the white skeleton bones on it.

You couldn’t trust anything to be what it looked like these days. Still, she admired the grace in her daughter’s simple gesture. It reminded her of another time. She made no comment as Ginny sat on the porch to pick snags from the dog’s fur.

The dog did not seem to be paying attention to what was happening, and for this reason Carla credited it with intelligence. Anyone knew not to react too soon since the landing. Ginny untied the rope from the soiled collar and tossed it aside.

“I am going to call him Stanley,” she said.

“Are you sure that’s a dog?” her mother asked.

Her daughter looked up at her for a moment, her dark eyes registering no reaction.

Stanley stood in the walk looking at Ginny. Carla watched in silence, holding her breath. When the little tail began wagging, she exhaled slowly. And when the dog emitted a single sharp yap, both of them laughed.

“Well, bring him inside and we’ll give him a bath and something to eat, in that order.”

It did not do to turn a vagrant from your door. This time Carla scooped up the dog and carried it inside and down the hall to the bathroom. Ginny shut the door behind them as Carla ran the bath water. When she had a few inches, she turned off the tap and set the dog in the center of the tub. Its tail stopped wagging.

Both watched the dog another moment before Carla went ahead and scooped water on its back. She took a bottle of green shampoo from the edge of the tub and squirted the tangled fur and rubbed it in. Ginny took off her shoes and socks and got in the tub, pouring warm water onto the soapy dog as her mother worked it in. She ran fresh water into her cup and rinsed the dog.

Her mother wrapped Stanley in a red towel, dried his face and head, and handed him to her daughter. “Get him dry and bring him to the kitchen.”

She went down the hall to the kitchen and opened the cupboard. She still had an orange bag of dog food from before Chucky disappeared. She took out the bowls from which he had eaten and filled them with cereal and water. She smiled when Stanley trotted in the kitchen with Ginny behind him. He went right to the bowl and stared crunching loudly.

Carla opened a drawer and took out the yellow, egg-shaped laser blaster. When she saw the apprehension on her daughter’s face, she said, “We have to see if we can find the owner.”

She got out a long, thin leather leash that had belonged to Chucky and clipped it to Stanley’s collar. As they stepped outside, Ginny said, “He came from this way.”

A man walked down the middle of the street, staring at them in passing. “Don’t look at him,” Carla whispered.

A few houses ahead a green sedan pulled in a driveway and a man in a suit got out. He came around to stand in front of them. “What have we here?” he said.

He stared at the dog a moment before crouching and extending his fingers for a sniffing. He looked up at them. “I believe you’ve found a dog.”

“His name is Stanley,” said Ginny.

“Stanley,” he said, tentatively scratching the dog’s ears. “Know where he came from?”

“Not exactly,” Carla said.

“Would you like me to accompany you?” he asked.

“You appear to be our neighbor Sam Hollister,” Carla said, looking at his green eyes.

“I am, Carla. We moved in five years ago. Before the skulls.”

She nodded. “You may come if you wish.”

The three of them went on together, searching the houses for new damage. They stopped in front of a house with a large pot of dead geraniums fallen on the sidewalk. A shard of pottery lay in the midst of the dirt that had spilled onto the walk.

It was not one of the houses with a skull spray-painted on the door.

“Was that pot knocked over?” Sam asked.

“I don’t remember,” Carla said.

A woman opened the front door and stood watching them. She seemed nervous, her fingers touching the buttons of her blouse.

“We weren’t sure whether this pot had been knocked over before,” Sam said.

“Oh,” the woman said. “No. It happened yesterday. I just got sick of it and kicked it over.”

“Is everything all right?” Carla asked her.

“Well, I guess,” she said. “You know, considering.”

She turned and went back inside and shut the door.

“She’s looking out the window,” Ginny whispered.

In a moment, the door opened again and the woman came onto the porch.

“I’ve seen that dog before,” she called.

“Yes?” Carla said.

“I think he lives around the corner, up here.” She pointed. “Three or four houses down. On the right.”

She went back inside and the door shut. The travelers went on to the corner and turned where the woman had pointed, glancing up occasionally at the blimp droning overhead.

“Do you recognize anything, Stanley?” Ginny asked.

Stanley didn’t respond at first, but then he stopped and stared at the next house. He didn’t want to go any further, so Sam went ahead and looked down the driveway.

“I see a doghouse in the back yard,” he said.

A boy opened the front window of the house next door.

When he had their attention, he whispered loudly, “They left him tied up in the backyard. I sneaked over one night and cut the rope.”

They stared at the boy. Sam didn’t move from the front of the drive, and Carla and Ginny stayed where they were until the boy shut the window. They urged the dog closer to the drive from which Sam had seen the doghouse, then stopped and looked into the backyard as well.

Stanley gave no indication he wanted to go any closer.

“Is this where you live, boy?” Carla said.

They went down the drive together. Stanley seemed more curious than before. When they got to the back corner of the house they stopped. They could all see that the back door stood open. Sam went ahead and peeked inside before waving them closer.

“I smell something cooking,” San whispered. They peered through the door but could see nothing. Carla poked her head into the kitchen with her blaster before her. She stepped in to see a pot rattling on the stove, a fire under it. She made her way to the pot and opened it.

Inside she saw the human head, with matted dark hair, very red in the face, staring at the side of the pot, its mouth open. She recognized him but couldn’t recall his name. She set the lid back in place carefully.

When she looked back at Ginny and Sam, she shook her head, wrinkling her nose. Stanley barked, and they turned to see a tall creature coming in the doorway from deeper in the house. The naked body had a human appearance though the transformation had not been complete, especially around the cadaverous, metallic, skull-like construction with protuberances at the top of the orb.

The creature leaned stiffly from the waist to take in Ginny and Sam and the dog, further in the kitchen, before exploding in the jolt of pink fire from Carla’s blaster. The charred cinder fell to the floor and broke in several pieces.

Stanley sat down on the kitchen floor. Ginny kneeled and petted him. Sam smiled down at her and said, “Well, I guess he’s yours now.”

Ginny and Carla laughed and Stanley barked and wagged his little tail against the floor.

They all turned at once as a woman, perhaps in her thirties, and a boy of thirteen appeared in the kitchen doorway, quickly appraising the scene—including the charred remains on the tile.

“You have killed him,” the boy said.

“We owe you our thanks,” his mother said quickly.

Both the mother and son watched them with their mouths open, waiting apprehensively, it seemed, or slack-jawed, for their response. The moment drew longer, though it might have been no more than a minute, punctuated at last by a double bolt from Carla’s blaster. The charred bodies fell to the floor with the creature who first interrupted them, breaking up on contact.

Sam whispered what they all thought: “Better safe than sorry.”

Carla hissed, “We better get out of here.”

Stanley tugged at the leash, urging them out the door. They hurried up the drive, waiting long enough for Ginny to run back and spray-paint a skull on the front door.

The travelers huddled together as they made their way back home.

“Now here we have the effect of their own laser blaster on two of them—all you see is cinder and ash, a little smudge on the ground, and a putrid smell which we could not get in the photo. But the interesting thing is this organ—if we can call it an organ—which at first looked like a second stomach. After experimentation and observation we actually believe this is a kind of appendix that does something a little more complex than isolate poisons. It is my belief—not everyone agrees—this organ takes in consumed human material, records it, and passes outward the transformation that results in the metamorphosis we find so disturbing. Much like protective coloration, this adaptive measure allows the creature to blend with a new environment.

“Here we see a rare photo of the creature in partial transformation. Pretty ugly, isn’t it? Like a half-formed man. So what we have amounts to a creature of many disguises. They have, however, learned to avoid morphing into lesser animals, though there is some evidence of a few dispirited dogs who may actually be aliens who chose the wrong host. Seems there’s no way out for them. We have not euthanized any because they provide more docile examples of the suspect transformation. This one we call Spot, for obvious reasons. Looks a little like a dog, doesn’t it? But whatever it is has been neutralized in this poor dog.

“Now, in order to make this shift, it is necessary to actually consume the creature into which the alien wishes to disguise himself. It is crucial, in your line of work, to understand that the transformed or metamorphosed creature retains none of the real properties of the original. It is a copy worked out in the physical make-up of the creature itself and should not, I repeat not be mistaken for the original. In short, do not hesitate to blow its fucking head off if you encounter it. For this reason, you need to familiarize yourself with the images of what before-and-after photos and sketches we have been able to produce.

“Are there any questions? If not, thank you for this opportunity. I hope I have been helpful today. I will leave this file of images with your Chief so you can view them as you wish. Best of luck, and good hunting!” Uw


bob4

Robert Pope has published a novel, Jack’s Universe, and a collection of stories, Private Acts, as well as many stories and personal essays in magazines such as Alaska Quarterly Review, The Kenyon Review, and The Conium Review. Forthcoming work will soon appear in the online journal The Flexible Persona and the anthology UnCommon Bodies. He lives in Akron, Ohio, with his wife Lisa Sarkis and their dog Harley and teaches at The University of Akron, where he is presently running a class in Science Fiction.                                                                                                  

NEXT STORY→