After introductions were made all around, I was invited to step outside. The military “grownups” needed to talk.
There was another bench along the front of the office. I sat there, away from the scraggly bearded man in uniform.
I watched the glowing lake below. In the late afternoon sun, it glittered like green fire.
“You want to kill the ass hats?” the bearded man asked.
He grinned. His two front teeth were missing. “I know how to kill the ass hats. Seen it happen. The commander doesn’t let me kill ’em here, but I know how. You wanna know how?”
My instinct for fact finding stopped at methods of homicide. “No thanks.”
I felt him watching me. I considered taking a walk, but I was exhausted. Skippy the Butthead stood across the street. He posed like a tree, his head thrown back. I noticed that the bearded man watched Skippy, his eyes burning with ferocious loathing.
That night, Kate and I stayed in an officer’s cabin. She and I were given bed rolls and an empty room. She lay on her side, facing away.
“I know you’re angry,” I said.
“Not just angry,” she said. “Furious. I didn’t want to believe it when my men told me they saw you at the Butthead compound and that you wandered this way. You could have been killed.”
“The yellow shrubs—they work very well.”
“But you didn’t know that for sure. And why wouldn’t you tell me you knew about this settlement?”
I didn’t answer.
“I’ll tell you why.” She rolled over to glare at me. “You wouldn’t tell me because you’re a reporter, because you have to be the first one on the scene, so you can get the scoop on everyone else. Your journalist’s instinct is one thing, but you could at least mention it to your wife.”
“You know what the worst thing is? You didn’t tell me, not because you didn’t want me to worry, but because you thought I’d go straight to Scargal. You think I’m military first and wife second.”
Her eyes narrowed. I squirmed.
“What I am is Captain Kate Yancey. The ‘Captain’ is for the military. The ‘Yancey’ is for you. And in the middle, there’s someone who I’d like to think is intelligent and trustworthy enough to know how to balance options and make choices for the greater good. You could at least trust me to think for myself.”
She rolled over again.
“I’m sorry,” I repeated.
I was allowed to accompany Kate and Lt. Darius when they reported to Admiral Scargal. The Admiral showed no emotion as Darius explained the fate of his ship. “So the enemy rescued your crew?”
“Yes sir,” Darius said.
“And they did not fire on you or take any hostile action against you?”
Scargal sat back in his chair and gripped its arms.
“Whatever the aliens motives are, sir” Kate offered, “They don’t appear to be as hostile as we had surmised.”
“Let’s not forget that they’re keeping us here against our will.” He turned to Darius. “Are you able to communicate with the Alliance?”
“No sir. Our signals are jammed.”
“So like it or not, we’re prisoners here.”
“If I may speak,” I said.
Scargal scowled at me.
“It’s true that the aliens won’t allow us to communicate or leave the planet, but we’re well cared for, sir, and we’re under no imminent threat. We should look at this as an opportunity to learn about them, find common ground. They could be allies if we could learn how to communicate with them.”
“They’ve shown no interest in communication,” Scargal said.
“I know, sir. But we can try. For decades, they’ve been a mystery to us. Now we can see them, talk to them. Let’s use this opportunity.”
The admiral jumped to his feet, glaring behind me. Once again, an alien stood inside, staring at us.
“Get out of my home,” the Admiral demanded. “Have a little respect for our privacy and just leave!”
The alien blinked, either not comprehending or not caring. He crossed the cabin, placed a salt shaker on the kitchen countertop, and departed through the wall.
We all stared at the salt shaker. Then the admiral sank back into his chair. “I intend to use this opportunity, Mr. Yancey,” he finally said. “I intend to find out how an undisciplined, retarded race has the capacity to evade a trained military force. I intend to find a weakness in their technology and use it against them. I intend to win the freedom of every soldier on this planet and make the Buttheads wish they’d never crossed the Alliance.”
“You plan on killing them?” I asked, now standing.
“If it becomes necessary.”
“And do you hope it becomes necessary?”
We glared at each other.
“I hope you don’t get us all killed,” I said. I turned and left.
The next morning, I scaled the mountain again. The Wise Old Butthead’s cliff wasn’t as easy to find as I’d expected. I scaled the animal trail, but every rock and incline looked the same. It was nearly two hours before I finally found him slumped at his cliff top, rocking listlessly, gnawingggnag nawing on a yellow root.
I placed my hands on my knees to catch my breath. When I could speak, I said, “I thought you people didn’t eat. You’ve got implants for all that.”
He didn’t turn to look at me, but with his free hand, he pulled up the side of his coat, revealing his knotted, tree-like torso. A long red scar ran down his side. “Removed it,” he said.
I straightened. “Why? You must miss it.”
I sat down next to him in the dust. “How long have you been up here on this mountain?”
“Since our First lost his focus.”
“Your First. You mean your leader? I’ve been looking for your leader. How do I find him?”
He hissed again.
“He lost his focus, you say. Is that why there’s no one working at the rock quarry?”
His hiss lengthened into a phlegmy sigh.
“Do you not answer because you don’t know?”
“Don’t care,” he said, and hissed again.
“You look different than the other, um, Buttheads. Older. Did you remove your anti-aging implant as well?”
“All implants. All gone.”
“And you won’t say why?”
“No. Tell me a story.”
The request surprised me, but as I sat down next to him on the cliff edge, it made some sense. He was all alone up here after all. “You want to be entertained? What do you usually do for entertainment?”
He pointed a long, knobby finger down the mountain. “Down there, implants. Up here, the sky, the lake, the call of beasts.”
“You have implants to keep you entertained? I mean, you had them before you left the others?”
He hissed and tilted his head. I guessed that was an affirmative.
“Okay, a story then.” I thought for a moment. What story do you tell an alien? A roar from a distant SPT brought something to mind.
I told him the story of Little Red Riding Hood. He sat still for once, even glancing at me occasionally. When I got to the part where the woodsman cut the wolf’s belly open and let Red Riding Hood and her grandmother out, the Wise Old Butthead began rocking again. “This is a false story,” he said.
“Yes, of course.”
“I approve. A human who mistakes a beast in human clothes for a real human. A beast that can swallow humans whole but can remain in a human domicile and wear their clothing. It is absurd. I approve. Tell me a real story.”
I looked down at the camp below. I cleared my throat and told him about my abduction, discovery of the colonists, my disagreement with Admiral Scargal and his determination to attack the Buttheads and escape.
“Scargal wants to kill,” the WOB said. “He is a warrior.”
“You want peace.”
“I guess so.”
“You are…” He hissed. “You are a poet.”
“That is the only human word I can find. A poet values wisdom and beauty. A warrior values strength and victory.”
I shrugged. “Sure.”
“The poet sees the darkness in himself and shrinks from it. He looks for a greater good outside himself and longs for salvation there. The warrior sees the darkness within himself and projects it onto his enemy. He fights against it there.”
“Both desire to overcome the darkness.”
“Both are fools.”
The tremble in his neck ceased. He turned and stared at me with his unreadable eyes. “The poet is the greater fool,” he said.
“Why is that?”
He looked away again. “The poet relies on hope. The warrior acts. The warrior’s path seems stupider. He waves his weapons and shouts. He beats his head against the enemy’s wall and rages. But in the end, after all his battles, he’ll know what the poet can only suspect.”
WOB’s neck began its wobble again. His shoulder’s slumped a bit. “It doesn’t matter. They’re both fools in the end. They both only want to overcome.”
“Whatever lies before them.”
We were silent then. I wasn’t sure I was going to get anything intelligible out of this alien. He’d tipped me off about the colonists down the lake shore, and he’d told me about the implants. But perhaps he was still just as crazy as any of them.
“You’re a lot deeper than your fellows down at the foot of the mountain.”
He hissed. “Introspection has been bred out of the Buttheads—a trait no longer necessary. I am an aberration.”
“Introspection huh? You’re saying they don’t think down there?”
“Of course they think. They are the most advanced species in the universe.”
I laughed. “It’s a big universe. There’s always someone more advanced.”
“No. There is no growth beyond this. What you see down there is the highest. We are inevitable.”
“What does that mean?”
He turned his head away.
“If they’re so advanced, why do I have a Butthead following me around, acting like a tree? Why does one wander our camp singing opera? Even the Butthead that delivers the daily rations seems as distracted as a child. Why do they behave the way they do?”
“Because they have overcome.”
“And what does that mean?”
His rocking grew more emphatic, as if he were trying to push the question away with his motion.
I spent much of the next day in the Butthead camp, asking around for their supposed leader. This was a mostly futile effort since few spoke to me, and those who did respond spoke gibberish. The only human sounding communication was from the one called “Opera Man” who repeatedly sang all of the parts from “Ride of the Valkyries” from Wagner’s Die Walküre. Skippy was there, pretending to ignore me, but he always managed to keep me in sight while he found different places in the compound to stand on his head.
I was pestering the driver of the hover cart that brought our rations each morning when I spotted Admiral Scargal and several other soldiers walking through camp, back from the colonists’ village. Scargal’s cold eyes scanned back and forth as they passed through the compound, and all of the soldiers had their weapons drawn as they advanced. The fact that they were incapable of shooting any of the Buttheads didn’t stop them from being ready to try.
Only one of the soldiers remained weaponless. At the rear of the procession, the bearded officer that I’d met outside Commander Braddock’s office followed. His wide eyes took in all of the aliens at once. His contempt for them was unmistakable.
I followed them back to our camp. Once there, I spotted Kate marching towards the admiral’s cabin. “What’s up?” I asked, falling in step beside her.
“Senior staff meeting,” she said. “I don’t know what for.”
“I think the admiral has made a new friend.”
I stopped outside the cabin. She glanced back at me as she climbed the stairs, confused. The bearded officer stepped inside after her.
I didn’t see Kate again until evening. She found me on the veranda watching the sun set in the orange haze beyond the twinkling lake. Opera Man sang nearby. I didn’t recognize the song.
“You ought to teach that alien some new songs,” Kate suggested as she dropped onto the bench beside me. “You’re a good singer. He told me he’s looking for someone to duet with.”
“Mmm,” I said. We were silent for a while.
“You don’t have much time to enjoy yourself, do you?” I said.
“We have all night,” she said, but without warmth.
“You met Scargal’s new friend?”
She nodded. “Lt. Z.”
“Z?” I repeated.
“His name is long and Polish sounding. He repeated it several times, but by the end of the meeting, everyone but the admiral called him Lt. Z.”
“Not many junior officers attended the private meeting,” I observed. “What did the lieutenant have to contribute?”
She studied me, her mouth drawn into a thin frown. “You must suspect something,” she said. “Or you wouldn’t be asking.”
“I’ve seen him before,” I said. “Talked to him. I’m sure you know that.”
She didn’t reply.
“You can’t just go killing the aliens,” I said.
“They may have us trapped here, but they haven’t killed anyone. Scargal knows that. They rescued the colonists. They rescued the Rutledge crew. I don’t know why they brought you and your crew here, but they’ve been nothing but courteous since then.”
Her jaw tightened. “So we should just sit back and enjoy being their…their pets? Is that what you’re saying?”
“I’m saying that they’ve given us a chance to get to know each other. I’ve been at their camp. They’re lousy communicators, but they aren’t evil and they don’t deserve whatever you’re planning, and if you force them to retaliate, they may decide they have no choice but to kill us all. Have you considered that?”
“We’ve debated a lot of things,” she said.
“What if we’re here as some sort of test? What if they’ve thrown us into a situation with a bunch of mentally slow Buttheads to see if we try to play nice or if we put all our efforts into killing them?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“It’s a thought. The fact is, you don’t know what’s going on and your military policy is to shoot first, right? You just need to find bullets that work. You should scrap all that and find a way to talk to them.”
Kate sighed. “You’re being naïve.”
“So I’m a poet,” I said. “You think it’s impossible to talk to them? Commander Braddock told me that before the captain of the Rutledge died, he used to talk to the Butthead’s leader. There was a connection there. It can happen.”
She turned away. We watched the sunset in silence for a minute. Then she stood up. “I’m hungry.”
“There’s salad waiting in the kitchen.”
She pulled our front door open.
“What’s the attack plan?” I asked.
“You know I can’t tell you,” she answered.
“I recall a recent conversation in which we talked about trust.”
She stepped through the door, leaving me with the twilight.
There were few jobs that the military trusted me with, but I was on rotation to help unload the rations cart. It wasn’t a difficult job. Four of us could have all of the crates off the hover cart in less than ten minutes. We spent the rest of the morning following the direction of an eager young lieutenant in distributing the food to each cabin.
That next morning, however, there were six of us waiting for the hover cart to arrive. There were the three I usually worked with, along with Lt. Z and a nervous enlisted man. Nobody spoke as the cart rose over the trees and descended onto the loading platform. Whatever was going on, the soldiers knew about it and I didn’t.
The cart never entirely touched down on the platform. It remained suspended a foot above the ground. The moment the cart stopped, the Butthead at the controls grew distracted, picking at the accumulated bugs that had smashed against the front of the cart. He lifted a few up to his face and sniffed at them, probably inhaling them in the process.
At first, all six of us began removing crates, but soon Lt. Z and his cohort snuck to the back of the cart. Lt. Z pulled a makeshift pry bar out of his shirt, and he and the other began working at something beneath the cart.
I continued to watch them as I did my job, but the other three soldiers acted as if nothing were happening. Before we were finished unloading, I heard a loud clunk. Everybody looked up at the cart driver. The alien remained distracted. When we all stepped off the cart, the driver tapped his control panel, and the cart lifted away. It veered slightly to the right and wobbled as it disappeared over the trees.
Lt. Z hefted a round panel from the platform. The other soldier followed him as they disappeared towards camp.
Four days later when I again had rations duty, Lt. Z and his cohort performed the same pilfering act.
Commander Wallace shot and killed a native creature while out on the trail one afternoon. In all of my hiking adventures, I’d never seen such an animal. It was like a fat, wide doe roughly half the size of a hippopotamus with big hollow eyes and bony ridges along the sides of its head. According to Lt. Z, the colonists called them bone deer and went out of their way to make a meal of them. “Lots of meat on ‘em,” he said. “You could feed half the camp.”
Soldiers dug a pit and started a fire in the middle of the common area. Lt. Z prepared the animal. He was clearly comfortable with butchery.
“Haven’t had meat in months,” said one of the soldiers sitting in front of me. We’d all pulled out chairs to sit near the fire that evening while Lt. Z and Commander Wallace poked and turned the huge steaks on a makeshift grill. “I’m so sick of vegetables and that synthesized protein crap the Buttheads always bring over.”
“You notice there’s almost no Buttheads hanging around right now,” said one of his companions.
“That’s right. Z says they don’t like the smell. Cooked meat keeps them away.”
“Hey, that’s an even better reason for the barbecue. We ought to do this every night.”
“Doesn’t Z give you the creeps,” said another soldier, sitting to the right of the group. “He comes off kind of crazy.”
The first soldier laughed. “Oh, he’s crazy all right. Lt. Darius says he’s always been a little off. He actually keeps pails of urine around his cabin to keep the Buttheads away.”
“You’re kidding. Does it work?”
First soldier shrugged. “I guess so. Would you go walking through his cabin if it smelled like old piss? Anyway, Z hates the Buttheads with a bloody passion. Darius says he didn’t even want to leave the Rutledge when it crashed. They had to sedate him when the Buttheads offered to help them evacuate. He said they were an abomination before God.”
They continued to exchange rumors about Z and the other colonists. I glanced around the common area, looking for Kate. Most of the others were here, waiting for the steaks to finish, but she’d gone off to spy on the Butthead compound. Their withdrawal from our camp made the admiral uneasy.
Admiral Scargal was honored with the first steak. Once he stood up with his plate and walked over to the fireside, a Butthead appeared from behind a tree, a hand over its nose. It took the admiral’s chair and carried it back towards his cabin.
“So what’s this about an attack on the Buttheads?” asked one of the soldiers. “Does Z really know how to kill them?”
The first soldier looked around. I pointedly looked away, casually leaning in my chair to look up the mountain side, my left hand nonchalantly cupping my ear to focus my hearing on the conversation.
The soldiers leaned their heads together. “They say Z saw one of the Buttheads get injured.”
“I thought that was impossible,” the soldier on the right whispered. “Anything that might hurt them passes through.”
“Exactly. They can’t be touched, except Z says they can. He says he knows how to disable their integration field.”
“It’s what our science officers call the thing that makes things pass through them. It’s an implant they have that casts this field around them that causes things to…I don’t know. You know what they’re like.”
“Right, so Z says that he used to spy on them up at their rock quarry when they were still working it. Back then, they were different—busy. He says they had a lot more of those hover carts working out there, that they’d use to transport slabs of marble. Z would be out there every day spying, and one day, one of the carts loaded with marble gets caught on the top of one of their towers. It dislodges one of the suspensor panels.”
“The round things that make the hover cart, you know, hover. It’s not a big deal. The cart still flies, but as it descends to a loading platform, the panel is hanging sideways, causing the cart to spin a little. One of the Buttheads walks up to steady it, and when he gets near the suspensor panel, the one that’s now aimed at him, his integration field turns purple. He’s surrounded with these purple sparks. That’s when one of the marble slabs slides off the top and falls on him. It crushes his freaking leg.”
“Z figures the suspensor panel canceled out the field that makes them untouchable.”
“So that’s why Thomas has been helping Z swipe panels,” the second soldier said.
Lt. Z banged a spatula against a frying pan. “You dogs want steaks, or are you just going to sit there? Come and get it.”
The soldiers in front of me jumped up to get in line.
When Kate returned a half hour later, the orange sunset was already fading over the lake. I had a steak saved for her. When she was half through I said, “Do you seriously think you have a chance against the aliens?”
She sighed and dropped her fork. “Let’s not talk about this.”
“Lt. Z has been busy,” I said. “I understand he has odd theories about negating the aliens’ integration fields.”
“Who have you been talking to?”
“It doesn’t matter. What matters is that something very bad is about to happen.”
“It’s none of your concern. You’re a journalist, not a soldier. Your job is to be non-objective.”
“Screw non-objective. I don’t care about getting a story. I care about two things. First, it’s wrong. They’ve been nothing but considerate to us. Second, if we are actually able to harm them, they might wake up and recognize we’re a threat. Then they start fighting back, and they’ll be armed with a hell of a lot more than suspensor panels.”
“Stay out of it, Jamal.”
“I’m in it, whether you like it or not. I’m not going to allow you to…”
“You’re going to stay out of it, or you’ll likely be forced to stay out of it.”
I stepped back, my eyes wide. “Is that a threat?”
“I hope threats aren’t necessary.”
I was out the door before Kate the next morning. I was so eager to get to the Wise Old Butthead’s cave, I nearly forgot to bring along my yellow shrub clippings.
The WOB wasn’t at his cave when I arrived. I hoped that he hadn’t abandoned it. I sat in the dust on the cliff top, dangling my feet over the drop, and waited.
I didn’t hear him arrive. He sat down next to me, a leafy stem protruding from the side of his mouth.
“I need to talk to you,” I said.
He slurped at the stem.
“I think our soldiers have found a way to kill your people.”
He stopped slurping for only a second. Then he went on as if I’d told him it was a nice day.
“Did you hear me?”
He hissed. With the stem in his mouth, the hiss came out with gooey spittle projectiles. I watched them fall over the cliff.
“I don’t want anyone to get hurt. That’s why I’m coming to you. You actually listen to me.”
“Poet,” he said.
“Yeah, I know. I’m a fool. The soldiers are fools. We’re all fools. But I don’t want things to escalate into a bloodbath. If you could talk to your people…warn them that something’s going to happen. A couple of our soldiers have stolen suspensor panels off of the hover carts and—”
“They would not listen,” he interrupted.
I stared. “You think they don’t care that some of them might be killed? I’m trying to prevent a war here.”
He slurped at his stem, then plucked it from his mouth and dropped it over the cliff. It hit the dirt fifteen feet below with a wet slap.
“I will tell you about my people,” he said. “Some of it might be familiar to you. Once, my people lived in forests. We crouched in shadows, fleeing predators. Then we learned to fight, to hunt. The prey became the hunters. We overcame our natural enemies. We looked to the horizon, to lands beyond our reach. We grew, continually seeking what lay beyond the horizon, always expanding, always conquering, until there were no more horizons for us to cross.
“We grew in knowledge. First, we developed our mechanical skills. Then we unlocked the secrets of electricity, of the atom, of the quantum components. We conquered the skies. Then we escaped our world. We overcame gravity. We overcame the limits of light speed.
“Our population grew and our world became insufficient for our survival. We conquered new environments on new planets. We met enemies in space. Sometimes they fought us. Sometimes they won. But we persevered. We overcame them. We learned to make ourselves untouchable. When our enemies struck, their fists passed through us. We persisted until we annihilated them.
“Meanwhile, we overcame the limits of aging. We overcame our own appetites. We overcame the dramas of life. We overcame disease. We looked inside and perfected ourselves against all mental instability. We overcame and overcame and overcame.”
He turned to look at me with his steady, unreadable eyes. “And now, there is nothing left to overcome.”
I stared back at him. “But there’s still something to overcome,” I said. “There are the Alliance soldiers. They’ll kill your men. You can stop them.”
“Do you know what lies beyond overcoming—what lies beyond the last horizon?”
“That’s a stupid question.”
“You are a stupid human.”
We stared at each other for a few seconds. Then he said, “You are about to become wise. You are about to come face to face with the inevitable.”
“You can’t just let this happen.” I was nearly pleading now.
“It happened long before we met,” he said. He stood up then and walked away without looking back.
Commander Wallace caught me telling everything to Skippy at the fire pit. Skippy was stretched across the pit doing pushups. For such thin limbs, he was surprisingly strong, having done at least 200 pushups before I worked up the courage to speak.
“It’s the suspensor panels,” I said. “They negate your integration field. They’re going to use it to make you vulnerable. Then they’ll probably shoot you or some—“
That’s when Commander Wallace threw his arm around my throat and dragged me backwards, gasping and retching all the way. “You dumb son of a bitch,” he growled. “What are you thinking?”
He didn’t release me until we reached a picnic table on the far side of Admiral Scargal’s cabin. Scargal sat there with Kate, Lt. Z and a few others. When they spotted us, Kate jumped to her feet. “Commander Wallace, explain yourself,” she ordered.
He dropped me at their feet. “He just told one of the Buttheads about our plans with the suspensor panels,” he said.
Scargal’s face went white. He scowled at me, then at Wallace. “How did the enemy receive this news.”
“Same as usual. It was like Yancey here wasn’t even talking. But you never know…”
“No, you don’t.” Scargal’s jaw was so tight, I expected to hear a tooth crack.
“Lt. Zinkevicius,” he said, turning. “I don’t think we need to waste any more effort on deciding our timing. The time has come.”
Lt. Z’s eyes lit up and he did not attempt to hide his wild grin. “Our plan of attack?”
Scargal stared. Then he closed his eyes and sighed. “Do what you have to do, Lieutenant. I leave it to your discretion. Get your men assembled.”
Lt. Z saluted and turned. He walked five paces, then ran like an excited school boy.
“No,” I said to the admiral. “You can’t do this.”
He turned to Wallace. “Place Mister Yancey under house arrest. If he tries to escape, use a stun pistol.”
“They’ve never hurt you,” I shouted. “They’ve never killed anyone.” I turned to my wife. “Kate, you can’t allow this. This is wrong and you know it.”
“Wallace, get him out now,” Scargal demanded.
Commander Wallace dragged me backwards, once again using a choke hold. I struggled. I tried to go limp. He was strong enough to drag me.
He dragged me through the common area when the soldiers struck. Skippy was still doing pushups over the fire pit, muttering in Chinese. Lt. Z had one of the suspensor panels strapped to his arm like a shield. In his right hand, he carried a bowie knife. Four other soldiers were also equipped with the panel shields and pistols. All of them had ammo and hand grenades clipped to their belts.
Z dropped into the pit beside Skippy. He banged the butt of his knife against the panel and it came to life, pushing him back slightly. He braced himself and pressed the suspensor panel against Skippy’s head. Skippy was immediately engulfed in purple sparks. He convulsed once and fell into the pit beside Lt. Z. Lt. Z then held the knife high in the air and brought it down hard upon the fallen alien.
Wallace watched with apparent awe. He stood frozen, still holding me around the neck. I swung my fist backwards, a hard punch to the groin. Wallace dropped me and doubled over.
Z and the others had already moved on. The soldiers spread out. I spotted one of them leaping to catch a Butthead in the chest with his suspensor panel. The moment purple sparks erupted from the alien, he shot it in the head.
I ran after him, but he had already disappeared behind the cabins. From somewhere distant, I heard Lt. Z cry, “Good job! Now let’s take the fight to them!”
By the time I reached the path to the Butthead compound, I spotted the last of the soldiers disappearing into the trees. I pursued them, not knowing or caring what I’d do when I caught up. I had to stop it—had to throw myself at the mercy of Lt. Z and the Buttheads and beg them to give up the fight. It couldn’t be allowed.
I heard gunshots before I was even half way to the compound. I was already too late, but I kept running. Before I reached the camp, I found two Buttheads lying in the path, one with a hole in its head, the other with a slash wound from its stomach to its chest. I jumped over them and continued on.
It wasn’t the slaughter that stopped me. When I reached the camp, Lt. Z and his soldiers were shooting and slashing at everything that moved. But what truly froze my blood and rooted me in place was the reaction of the aliens. Some of them continued to walk along their way as if nothing were happening. Some stopped to watch the massacre as if they were watching a sunrise. In the midst of the chaos, one Butthead raised his hands above his head and began singing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” He was only four lines into the song when Lt. Z slammed his suspensor panel against the left side of his head and thrust his knife into the right. The song ended on a long drawn out “aaaaaaa…” sound.
I fell to my knees, then on my face. I didn’t save anyone, and nobody cared. I lay there, inhaling the dust and weeds, and I didn’t wince when I heard gun shots.
Nobody bothered to put me back under house arrest. I was left there on the ground, a forgotten casualty of the Alliance’s first great victory against the enemy.
When I grew weary of my place in the weeds, I got up and wandered into the forest, heedless of my lack of the yellow shrub, heedless of the thick foliage that blocked my way. I wandered through brambles that scratched me and tore my clothes until I found an animal trail. I was aimless, but I continuously moved higher, until even in my confusion, I knew where I was going. Anger took hold in some corner of my chest and spread like a fire until I was shaking with rage when I reached the WOB’s cave.
He sat at his usual perch on the cliff’s edge, staring out at the lake. I grabbed him by the shoulder and dragged him backward, not knowing what I’d do or why. He stared up at me with those alien eyes, and my fist came down like a wrecking ball. I punched and punched, shouting inane half words and half sentences. “Do you like that view?” I cried. “Does that stupid lake do it for you?”
I didn’t stop until one of his eyes was swollen shut and my fist was bloody and sore. Then I fell backwards into the dust and cried like a lost child.
My crying deteriorated into shaking, infantile sobs, and those decayed into a dull numbness. I lay on my back and stared up at the churning sky. I don’t know how long I lay like that. The WOB stood over me after a while, chewing his yellow root.
“You learned what lies beyond the last horizon.” he said.
“Nothing,” I replied. “Nothing.”
He nodded. The gesture was so human, I felt the rage again in my gut, but there was nothing left inside me for it to consume.
“You’re like dreaming children,” I muttered.
He cocked his head to one side.
“But why did your people bring us here? Why keep us prisoner?”
“You don’t know?” I asked.
“I only suspect. I left the moment our First lost his focus, before more humans were brought.”
“You mean your leader.”
“Our First was fascinated by one of those humans out there.”
“He was friends with the captain at the colonists’ village.”
“They sang together. Then the captain died. Perhaps our First wanted to find another human to sing with.”
We said nothing more. I didn’t care what else he knew. I stumbled down the mountain, heedless of danger. I didn’t care.
I didn’t care when I arrived at camp and saw the blood streaked grin on Lt. Z’s face as he posed for a picture with the head of an alien on the end of a stick.
I didn’t care when someone cheered that they’d established contact with an Alliance ship and we’d all be rescued.
I didn’t care when my wife stopped me on the path and wrapped her arms around me and cried. I didn’t respond.
I walked back to the veranda at the front of the cabin and sat down in my usual seat next to the hot tub and stared out at that stinking cesspool of a lake called Exile.
And I didn’t care.