Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




Bear and Shifty

I ambled around the side of the after-market armored minivan and helped Mr. and Mrs. Perkinson load in the rest of the grocery goods, stashing them in the back and strapping them down. They were going to have a hell of a ride home, we all knew it, so when the work was done, I lingered there. I smiled and offered a cigarette and Mrs. Perkinson took me up on it with her one shaking hand. She was no smoker, it was easy to see.

We stared out into the bright sun of the desert, our backs against the rock formation, and my eyes went automatic for any ships, but it was clear.

In a stone cold voice, her man told me they’d lost their son, Alex. They lost him to infection over the winter, he said, and we all just stood there for a moment. Mr. Perkinson stared at his boots, still unused to the admission and unsure of what came next.

Mrs. Perkinson had lost her left hand the year before; she picked at the stump angrily now with the hand that held the cigarette, and I thought what rotten luck they had. Though it was a miracle they were both alive; hell, then again, for whom was it not?

After a moment I put my hand on each of their shoulders and told them it was going to be just fine. Mrs. Perkinson jumped a little, and then leaned into the touch. I pulled them in a little closer. I’m a big man, and it’s useful in situations like these, don’t I know it, to have something to lean into for a moment. For a bit of solidity. I’m not saying I always use my mass in the most honorable of ways, but in this I was certain, and I held onto them long enough that each of us was able to shed a tear—it’s easier when someone’s got a grip on you—until Mrs. Perkinson burned the tips of her fingers with the dying cigarette.

I wasn’t at all sure it was going to be fine. They had people to feed on the other side, another kid or two if I remembered correctly. But if there were any possibility that wishing things would go well actually affected the outcome—then for god’s sake wish, wish away.

I patted the back of their car as they drove off and then attended to the next customers.

In our partnership, I do what Roger calls the “dirty work.” I fill the emotive shoes. People talk to me. Roger doesn’t care for it, but he knows sometimes it can’t be helped, and that here in particular, people break down. When they get a little relief, when they get a little something extra, they cry. It’s only here that they see for certain what they’ve been doing without for so long. I’ve come to consider it part of the services we offer: one part border smugglers, one part chapel.

We raid old food stores deep in enemy lines. I happen to be pretty good at alien-speak and Roger is a crafty dodger. We make a good team. Both of us are big, and out here on the front that makes a difference, in the fights and the discouragement of fights. What we run is a sort of Robin Hood-style operation, but instead of giving it out for free, we charged for it, so I suppose that cuts against Robin’s ethics. Everybody’s got to live. Nevertheless, we give a good enough bargain to people we know. New customers, not so much—you have to trust them first.

I scratched deep in my beard. I hadn’t given myself a cut since ’169, and the hair covered my chest like a second shirt. I was a little self-conscious giving out hugs when I wasn’t sure what all might be stuck there.

The last customer that day was Shifty, as we called him, a skinny, pale-faced kid with a receding hairline and clothes that looked like they’d been buried with their previous owner. He’d come a couple times previously, once to try to sell us back some goods that I felt sure we’d sold someone else earlier that day. He stood at the back of the grover. It had the back opened up, showing what we had on display. You couldn’t tell if he was going to pull and start firing or just ask for a lower price on the canned goods.

Even so, I teased him. Couldn’t help it really. Roger says it’ll get me killed one day, pushing some sap so he doesn’t know himself anymore. I put my arm across his shoulders and let it sit there heavy and talked to him about what we saw on the other side, exaggerating just a little, and he began to get uncomfortable.

“See this?” I showed him the long, ugly scar I had down the back of my arm, making a flesh line through the old tattoos there. “Alien claw. Pretty, right? You want a nicer deal, you come with us next time, Shifty.”

“My name’s not Shifty.”

“Sure it ain’t,” I said and winked at Roger.

Shifty’s face turned red and he balled his fists.

“Come on,” I said, “let’s not get all riled about nothing.”

I picked up a can of garbanzo beans, severed the top with my knife, pulled back the tin and saw his shrunken face light up a little. The garbanzos were still good, judging by the smell. Then I put my arm back around Shifty, to keep him contained more than anything else, and told him to hold out his hands. I poured a dollop of garbanzos in them and he choked them back without a thought and I knew there’d be no fights today.

“Good, right?” I said. I held one of the beans up between my fingers—it looked surprisingly human-faced and so I pointed its nosy beak toward Shifty and talked it in a squeaky little voice, “I can keel uh alien by my own self! Tee hee hee!” Shifty stared at it in a sort of vacant horror and so I tried again. “I’m Sheriff Bean, the baddest bean in town! You ain’t be eatin’ my kinfolk, is you?”

I answered it in a bassy giant’s voice: “I will eat you all!” and popped it in my mouth. I squealed out its death-throes as I ate it, and then laughed at my own joke and fished for another garbanzo in the can. I offered the can to Shifty and elbowed him, “Come on, you try it. Talk a bean. It’ll make you feel better.”

He must have thought I was mocking him, because I was wrong about the fighting. A while later, when I was loading up, he put a knife in my back. I leaned against the grover with it stuck out of my shoulder blade and swore a spell. Roger held his gun on him, and even then Shifty demonstrated his lack of mental acuity as he tried to go after Roger with nothing but his dirty little fists.

He was just about to get himself shot when our problems got a lot worse. An alien notch-craft appeared in the sky out of nowhere and swooped in on us for a look-see. After the first pass, it turned back to gun us down. If you haven’t seen one of these yet, it’s worth a trip to the borderlands. A heavy, chunky saucer with notches cut out of it so it looks like a thick X, it’s a serious gunship. Best to run from.

Roger got a hold of Shifty’s hair as he stood ogle-eyed, shoved him into the vehicle, and I stumbled in beside him. We held on as Roger accelerated out of there, leaving our spot just as a hail of sound cratered where we’d been. I tried to hold as still as I could, cross-legged on the floor of the vehicle. I worried I might bump my back against something and drive the knife in further, but the knife was weakly lodged in a zone I only had nominal sensation in anyway, an old wound among many. After Roger hit a straight-away, I turned to Shifty and asked if he could help me out.

The boy—for I finally realized that under all that grime that’s what he was: eighteen, twenty at most—was spooked, but I was insistent and got his attention.

“Come on, you dumb kid! Get it out!” I hollered over the noise.

He turned around and faced the other way and I grabbed his shoulder and turned him back. “You put it there, you take it out.”

I realized there was some risk of his simply driving it in a bit further, but reason overtook him and he gave it a hard pull until it came free. I screamed, I admit somewhat dramatically, until Roger shushed me. I turned back to Shifty and smiled and saw he’d thrown up all over his shirt.

“Take it off,” I said, “you don’t want to be wearing that.” He didn’t look so good so I put my hand on his shoulder and told him it was going to be just fine and no hard feelings. Then I dug through our stash and found a crushed box of Sweet Os—a Cheerios knockoff—and opened it up. Maybe garbanzos weren’t Shifty’s thing. He was thin as a rail with his shirt off. I scooped him a handful and he munched on these quietly, catatonically.

I had some too. “Mmm,” I said, my mouth full. “Good, right?”

I offered them to Roger but he hollered, “Goddamnit, Bear!” at me. I looked at Shifty to acknowledge the unfairness, but the boy was just barely present.

The notch-craft flew low behind us, leaving craters all over the place, and the grover was getting bumped around pretty good, so that every once in a while the Sweet Os in my right hand geysered up out of the box.

We don’t have weapons on the grover that can handle a notch-craft, except for the one big one and that’s handheld, and there’s no point in trying to backseat drive Roger, so my policy is to ignore and be as pleasant as possible and let him do his job. I found an old Styrofoam cup, poured it full of Sweet Os, and scrambled my way up to the front where I put it in the cup holder. The grover was akin to a lightly armored, all-terrain racing RV. There were a couple of bunks where Roger and I slept, and a good deal of storage space for contraband. It was tightly made and could take a beating. Though Roger made us a hard target, notch-craft were reliably mediocre at hitting something on the run. On the other hand, I considered the possibility they might not want to hit us.

Back with Shifty, I realized he was in a state, gripping what he could and hyperventilating a little.

I asked him why he stabbed me.

He didn’t say anything, just looked a bit sicker. There were a few Sweet Os stuck to his chest in the vomit residue there. I rustled up a washcloth and dampened it and handed it over so he could clean himself up a little, but he just held onto it like I’d handed him the tail of a dead rat.

“Ah, buddy,” I said, and took the washcloth back and proceeded to do the cleanup job on him myself. It was a bit awkward, but I’d once had kids and was no stranger to cleaning up somebody else’s face. When I was finished, I handed him one of Roger’s shirts and he clutched that as well, as if he couldn’t quite get the mechanics of it, and I decided I’d hassled him enough for the time being.

I went to sit in the passenger seat. Roger weaved crazily about in an attempt to outmaneuver any torpedoes they sent at us, driving on and off the road, skirting the remains of dead automobiles and existing craters. There was a dust storm whipping up on the horizon.

While they’d obviously gotten a lot of things right when they invaded, they hadn’t counted on Earth dust, and it played holy hell with their equipment—which is why the Southwest is a human holdout.

Roger headed for an old city, the corridors too narrow for notch-craft flight, where we’d hunker and wait for the dust. I put my feet up on the dashboard and ate my Sweet Os.

“How’s it going?” I said.

Roger nodded and clutched the steering wheel, the sweat adding an angry sheen to him.

“Shifty has gone all freaky,” I said.

A crater opened directly in front of us and Roger slammed hard on the brakes and swerved to the right and yelled, “Cocksucker!”

“Can I get you anything?”

I knew that my general lack of reaction in the face of death tended to aggravate Roger a little. I’d been a prisoner between ’165 and ’169, and I’d pretty much had my fill of death. They took the lot of us, my wife and the two boys, when they were just getting a feel for how to deal with us humans, clumsy fuckers. I escaped in the end, and learned to cuss native alien, too. They were hard years, and I tried to put them behind me. The way I looked at it, fear and pain were sensations that’d been mostly dulled right out of me. I clumped a lifetime allotment of them into those five long years.

“You check him?”

“Shifty?” I said.

“Bet he works for them,” Roger grunted out, between clenched teeth.

“Hey?” I said.

“What else explains this? They got to him. He’s a dual.”

Shifty had positioned himself to stare right out the back at the oncoming notch-craft, which seemed like a bad idea for all kinds of reasons. But considering he’d already thrown up I supposed there wasn’t a lot of harm in it. I snuck up on him and checked behind his left ear. He seemed to notice me for the first time since we’d been in the grover. He turned and took a swing at me.

But I saw it: the silver dot marking a trans-comm installation, dual conscious. Probably installed by force or got promised off-world living or some other bullshit, i.e.: slave. The aliens were shit in the human resources department, though, and still couldn’t quite get a handle on human character. Shifty didn’t have the greatest natural intelligence about him.

He was still swinging and connected with my gut. I let out an involuntary grunt, then grabbed his wrists, looped a bit of rope about them, and hog tied him. I felt sick about the whole situation. “Who am I talking to?” I said gently, first in English, then in alien, the gravelly consonants ringing out dead and flat between us.

“My name’s Preston!” he yelled, and there was a blood-curdling panic to his proclamation.

Preston seemed like such an absurd name, from some other era entirely, that for a moment I tried to get my brain to spit out what the word meant in alien tongue, to no avail. “Okay,” I said finally, “hey, Preston.” I wondered what effort saying his own name had cost him.

Then, in alien, I asked who I was talking to again, and that did it. His eyes did the slightest roll and he spoke back to me in alien, letting me know that we should pull over immediately, that we had stolen contraband, that we were under arrest and would be terminated, and a lot of other things that frankly I lost interest in. The aliens must come from a culture where communication is a real, repetitive bore.

The trans-comm link in the brain is a little weak by design, a hacky bit of tech that lodges consciousness between two radio signals. It allows a consciousness switch, but I couldn’t bring back Preston. Honestly, I thought they’d stopped trying to install them, considering the failure rate, and so I never thought to check. Maybe they were getting better. He kept on with his alien lecture, and once he’d finished, he started it over from the top. I felt sorry for the kid and conflicted and put Roger’s pillow under his head and brushed his shaggy hair out of his eyes. Come on, I told him, trying to reach the human in there. He was too damn young. Come on, I said again, and then I got spooked out, the notch-craft tailing in close and their voice coming through this mangy young kid on the floor of the grover, so I went to the front to keep Roger company. I brought the big gun with me, just to hold onto something. Roger had made it to the city edges and the notch-craft dodged all manner of obstacles behind us in order to get a clean shot.

“You were right,” I said.

“Told you,” he said.

“So young.”

“Old enough.”

“Just a kid, with no real adventures under his belt.”

“Don’t go getting all weepy on me,” he said, “we got pressing shit going on.”

I checked our status again and saw we were out of the woods. Roger could handle a city cat and mouse game with his eyes closed. I patted him on the back and told him I was confident in him—he needed to hear this sometimes—and headed back to check on my boy.

Preston was still at it with the alien lecture, and the garbled syllables issued from him. I wish to hell I could unknow them, let them only be the foreign sounds they were. I gave him a good shake and called his name again. I called him Shifty, and futzed with the silver dot at the back of his ear—which I know I shouldn’t do. In the old days, when they’d just started making them, sometimes a little pressure could paralyze a man.

After a while, disgusted with us both, I sat back on my heels and just watched him, let him spew out. I wondered: Maybe the aliens knew what they were doing after all? Maybe they knew to pick the weak ones now, the kids, so they could get control. Out of habit, I reached back and touched the silver dot behind my own ear, hidden in my hair, just pretty decoration now. My consciousness had barred it access. I am not weak. But Shifty—he was young.

“We got to get somewhere!” I yelled to the front of the truck.

“What the fuck do you think I—”

“I want to work on the boy,” I said. “Somewhere calm for a few hours.”

My back wound stung and I rolled my shoulders and prepared myself for the task ahead. I could feel the tacky stickiness of a little blood that had made it down to my waistline.

Via Shifty, I told those alien sonofabitches that we were going to pull over, and to quit sucking their claws. A terrible insult if you’re an alien, and I felt like I heard an answering increase in firepower behind us.

Though I was one of the first, they didn’t seem to recognize me. After imprisonment, I’d grown this big beard, and to them it was like some kind of metamorphosis from which they had no vantage. I was changed and unrecognizable. And I suppose there was some truth in that.

Roger pulled down into an underground parking garage below a building. Oldest trick in the book. No way a notch-craft can follow. I put the odds at about 15% that they’d follow us on foot. Then again, we had their man. I gave Shifty a pat on his chest and wondered if I should blindfold him.

Underground there was a mini-encampment, four or five families, pushed against the very back parking slots, walls made of rubble and tarp. I smelled a cooking fire, which cut through the foul smell of twenty people living in a parking garage. The fire smelled good; I suspected they’d caught themselves a couple of birds to fry. They all came and looked at us as we screeched to a halt. They were thin and dead-eyed and a little hostile, bearing meager weapons, a pistol here and there. Poor sods. Immediately, I wanted to give them something. There were four boxes of Sweet Os remaining and I strode toward them, my gifts pushed out in front of me. Even so, they held their weapons on me for a moment to ascertain that the Sweet Os weren’t some kind of explosive device. They were scared and kept looking toward the opening, where I could hear the notch-craft hover as the aliens tried to decide what to do. But I assured them there’d be no alien trouble. We made quick friends and then I asked them for a cot so I could work on my sick comrade and they directed me to a dirty pile of blankets.

I pulled Shifty from the grover and carried him by his bonds. Beside me, Roger was keeping pace and cussing me out for messing with any of “this crap.” We had aliens to flee and work to do and all that, and he was right, and I knew it, but you know? Sometimes there’s an opportunity, sometimes it comes just out of nowhere, a chance for you to do something. Roger had the big gun out in case the aliens came into the garage. He’d be all right.

Shifty’s human mouth had tired of speaking the alien tongue, the muscles worn from it, and it was slurring and bumbling the words; they were cursing and giving us orders and threatening to come in after us, their big gunship circling the building. It occurred to me they could simply collapse the building, and that paused me right up in my tracks as I looked at all these refugees around me. Just then I heard a terrific boom and realized they’d had the same idea. The building shook, but it held. They didn’t try it again. I suspected they wanted their man back.

I set Shifty on the blankets and tried to talk to him. I knew every word I said went back into that damned notch-craft and got analyzed. He was their little radar. As long as he was here, they knew we were alive. I slapped Shifty’s face and pleaded with him, and then I gave him a bear hug, gripped him against me in a crushing embrace and whispered in his ear. I must have looked like an idiot. But I couldn’t reach him.

There are three ways to get someone out of dual captive consciousness.

The first is to put them under the knife and remove the trans-comm. A crap shoot for the best of our surgeons that just as often severed shit-all in a guy’s brain.

The second is to lure them back into human consciousness, by whatever fashion you can, if you can, and then teach them tricks for strengthening theirs, so that they have defenses against the switchover. In essence, you train the neural network to route around the trans-comm.

Roger appeared next to me. “Update,” he said.

“Coming along,” I said testily.

He raised his eyebrows at me in an exasperated face and I turned away. Roger didn’t ken no bullshit. “They’re not going away, Bear. They want you, or him, or us, I don’t know. And it’s only a minute before they start lobbing rollers into the opening and then they got all of us.”

I could see he was right and a shiver went through me. “I got this,” I said.

Shifty kept at it: Krkrl greklz yiddil qlkjl.

The third method is to kill them. From two consciousnesses to none. But I told myself he could be saved. Technique number two had been done to me by a man named Chester, over a period of a month’s time, before he was hunted down and killed.

After Roger stormed off, his giant gun swinging side to side, I covered Shifty’s mouth with my hand to stop the sound for a moment so I could think. I could not get the alien switched off.

Shifty breathed hard through his nose and stared up at me and I relaxed my hand for a minute and heard only more alien. Behind me I knew Roger was getting all military, getting the refugees to gather in one safe spot, wielding his big gun.

I leaned in close to Shifty and whispered in his ear, the one without the trans-comm. I whispered about us. About having a mother and a father, about elementary school and girlfriends and suppertime and Thanksgiving—I was a little hungry and I may have talked about food for a while—about his birthday. Did he remember when that was? I talked about sunsets and the moon, our moon. I said: sweat and eyelashes and fingers and piss and shit and I asked him to consider his genitalia, for that, too, especially that, was human. I spoke it in English and in alien, hoping to loose that grasp there with the dirty intricacies of this foreign species that we were. In his eyes I thought I saw a change.

I nodded to him, yes, we had gotten through, we were brothers. I would teach him how to block that foreign consciousness, how to disable the trans-comm. I would be his teacher and repay the debt I owed.

I needed this. Only in his rescue could I exact a little revenge, only in the saving of a life could I screw them a little.

But when he spoke it wasn’t right.

It was English, but the words were all wrong. He said: Hello. He said: Big planet. Little people. He said: Bugs.

“Preston!” I yelled into his face, “I want Preston!” like it was a telephone line and I could simply ask for the right person to be put on.

There was a hint of a smile on Preston’s face then, but it was not a human smile, but an approximation of one, and I grabbed his head and wrenched it quick to the right and snapped his spinal cord.

Then I smoothed back his hair and undid his bonds and shut his eyelids over his eyes. I hovered that way for a long while, one of his hands in mine, in the intimacy of my failure; I did not have the proper words, but I did my best.

When I looked up again the aliens were streaming into the opening of the parking garage like a river of ants, the refugees were huddled into a tight corner wailing with fear, and Roger was down, bleeding from his side.

There were projectiles peppering the air. I made my way quick to Roger and pulled him behind a concrete pillar and got the big gun off him.

They couldn’t speak my tongue, not without capturing one of our own, but I could damn well speak theirs. I charged them, calling them claw lickers and tail draggers and worlders and every other manner of alien insult and then I did them. I took out four who’d already made it to the level of the garage with the big gun. Big gangly suckers, weak-muscled and slow in our gravity, with wicked claws and helmeted heads shaped like balloons, armed with their alien weaponry. I mowed them down with the big gun, a monster to carry, which shot four barrels at the same time and turned its targets into mush. I got the next bunch on the ramp. I was a tornado, unstoppable in rage, speaking only alien, practically one of them, and I took that tornado out into the dusty sunshine and up into their landed ship and destroyed every thing on it, juiced them with the big gun so that their thin blood ran from the deck and out onto the corroded asphalt, an unrecognizable mass of bio carnage everywhere.

When it was done, I stood staring out through the blasted-out window of the notch-craft cockpit, looking about at the world unintelligibly, desiring more. I could hear a soft wailing issuing from the parking garage under the building, and an occasional click and groan from the ship as it resettled around its own metallic injuries.

Finally I lowered the big, hungry gun and left the notch-craft. For a moment, I considered just walking. Taking myself along the abandoned city streets and walking it all out, to the edge of the city, and then beyond, to the edge of the desert and the human world, walking to exorcise what evil remained in the world or perhaps just me. Briefly, I saw in my mind an elusive image of my youngest son, pre-capture, something that I thought had been prised from me, like so many other things, and it hit me like a gut wound. I tried to snatch it, to save it, but then it was gone. In that moment, as the pain faded, hovering on the edge of my consciousness, I felt I was on the verge of a revelation about our species. It was almost there, a moment of ultimate insight, some great truth looming, but as it hovered there and I worked at it, struggling to bring it into reach, I suddenly laughed; what need did I have for revelation? My friend was in a parking garage bleeding and there were families down there. What would I do with a fucking revelation, talk it like a bean?

As I walked down the ramp, I heard cheering. Who doesn’t liked to be cheered, even if it twists a little deeper the knife of regret—keep this silent, enjoy yourself, I told myself. Do not grimace, but smile. I was hugged and children followed me. They pointed at the big gun, and I locked the safety and leaned it against a concrete pillar where they could study and adore it like children do. A woman was caring for Roger; he would live. He was conscious and smiled at me and called me buddy, and I realized that I would never have this revelation. This revelation about our kind was not attainable, we were not meant to understand ourselves. And if we could not, what hope did the aliens have?

I opened up the doors of the grover and pulled out boxes of food and began to hand them out, playing my Robin Hood to the small, frightened clan. I was hungry myself. After, I sat on the floor of the garage with a small circle of little admirers around me and taught them how to talk a garbanzo bean. Mine, speaking in its funny falsetto, leering preposterously at the children, was comic and sad.

© 2012 Benjamin Parzybok

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Benjamin Parzybok

Benjamin ParzybokBenjamin Parzybok’s second novel, Sherwood Nation, is forthcoming. He’s the author of the novel Couch, and has had short stories published in the Bellevue Literary Review, Strange Horizons, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. He has been the creator/co-creator of many other projects, including Gumball Poetry (literary journal published in capsule machines), The Black Magic Insurance Agency (city-wide, one night alternate reality game), and Project Hamad (an effort to free a Guantanamo inmate and shed light on Habeas Corpus). He’s currently co-writing a novel with writer David Naimon. He lives in Portland with the artist Laura Moulton and their two kids. He blogs at