The soldiers called it Lake Exile. It sparkled below me like a field of glittering emeralds in the sunlight. The green mountain that loomed over us was Warden Peak, and although this planet was known on star charts as Manasseh, the soldiers called it New Alcatraz.
They could call it what they wanted. I called it paradise. Ensign West found me on the veranda gazing down at the verdant lake under the churning pea-green sky. The raptors in the trees around our so-called prison camp may have been startling to look at, but their song was melodious and rhythmically hypnotic. I was caught up in the spell, content to absorb the natural symphony of sight and sound forever.
“Mr. Yancey,” West said.
I tore my eyes away from the lake and turned.
“The admiral would like to speak with you.”
Kate had told me to expect this—a debriefing. I stood and followed Ensign West into the heart of our camp.
As prison camps go, I’d give it five stars. Cobblestone paths, a wide common area surrounded by copper-shelled cabins. Soldiers sat at picnic tables and talked. Some kicked a soccer ball around. Others played Frisbee. I passed a few men and women tossing pennies against a cabin wall.
In one corner of the common area, shunned by everyone, sat one of the Buttheads. Its head hung low, its red-rimmed eyes stared at the ground, its forehead a fleshy, bulbous protrusion that hung over its eyes like a visor. The forehead was what earned our alien hosts their dubious nicknames. More shocking than the forehead, however, was the Butthead’s mouth—a wound-like gash that stretched to the sides of its head at its widest point. Its willowy arms hung listlessly at its sides.
I hesitated as West led me past the bench on which the Butthead sat. I was still unaccustomed to seeing the aliens up close.
The alien stood, startling me backwards a pace. Its eyes closed, it threw its large head back, and in a beautiful vibrato tenor, it began to sing “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.”
My mouth hung open. West had to pull on my sleeve to get me moving.
“Do they always sing like that?” I asked.
“Only that one. We call him Opera Man.”
“So it’s a male…uh…Butthead?”
West shook his head. “Who cares?”
At Admiral Scargal’s cabin, West knocked once and pushed the door open for me. The cabin was identical to the one Kate and I shared: comfortable furniture, tile floors, white wood paneling, and a picture window overlooking the lake. The grim faces of the officers were a stark contrast to the sunlit cheer of the room.
They sat in a semicircle of dining chairs. An empty chair sat opposite them. “Have a seat, Mr. Yancey,” said the admiral.
Kate sat at the admiral’s right, her hair pulled back and her uniform pressed to perfection. As I sat, I smiled at her. She didn’t smile back.
“So what do you think of your new home?” Admiral Scargal asked. “Comfortable?”
“Uh…yes, sir. It’s very nice here. Manasseh is a beautiful planet and we’ve been well provided for by the aliens—“
“The enemy,” Scargal corrected. “Let’s not forget that they’re the enemy. They’ve taken us prisoner. They murdered our comrades, along with more than a thousand civilians. And they kidnapped you.”
“They may have kidnapped me, but are we really prisoners? I mean, we’ve got every—“
“They jam our communications with the outside, they’ve got a satellite blockade around the planet, and we can’t access their ships or obtain resources to build our own. We have no way off this rock, Mr. Yancey. If it’s not a prison, what is it?”
I didn’t know the answer, of course. I tried matching Scargal’s gaze. I couldn’t. I stared at the floor and said nothing.
Scargal finally sighed. “Let’s just cut to the chase. Captain Yancey has shared what you told her about your abduction. We want to get the specifics from you personally.”
He waited, his shrewd eyes like slits fixed on me.
I cleared my throat. “Well, I’m a journalist working for the New Prague Press Syndicate. I was there as a political correspondent until Kate’s…until Captain Yancey’s ship was found abandoned. Then I asked to be reassigned to Admiral Brady’s fleet carrier.”
“We’re not interested in your background,” Scargal interrupted. “Tell us about the abduction itself. We want to know how they managed to get aboard an Alliance ship and what prompted the kidnapping.”
So, I told them what I knew. Scargal’s eyes never wandered from my face.
When the aliens came for me, I was sitting in a listening post on Admiral Brady’s carrier, about four million kilometers from Manasseh, observing reports coming back from a fleet of Alliance starfighters. They had been dispatched to attack the enemy satellite base using a new missile prototype, something the Alliance hoped would finally do some damage to our mysterious foes. As always, our missiles passed right through the enemy vessel. We couldn’t touch them, couldn’t even get a response from them. The enemy never fired back.
The fuzzy images relayed back from the fighters showed the ominous glowing green base, unaffected by our efforts to engage it. Enemy vessels were always green, silent and untouchable. They could fly through blockades without leaving a trace, and any projectile launched at them would pass through like they were made of mist. This phenomenon earned our enemies the nickname Green Ghosts.
As I watched and listened, I was only marginally aware of raised voices behind me. Then I heard a stun pistol blast. When I spun around, I found that the soldiers in the listening station lay unconscious. Two aliens stared down at me.
“You are Jamal Yancey,” one of them said.
I just stared up at its face, dumbstruck. Here in front of me was an honest to goodness alien, and I was, as far as I knew, one of the first people to see one of the elusive Green Ghosts in the flesh. The reporter in me studied every feature, taking mental notes for reconstruction should I be asked to describe it to an artist. The husband in me wanted to throttle it and demand to know where my wife was. Its eyes looked almost amused, but the face was unreadable. Its mouth was a grotesque wet line.
“You are Jamal Yancey,” the alien repeated. “Follow.”
One alien led the way, the other walked behind me. I considered resisting them. After all, they had no weapons. But the best way to get answers about the fate of Kate and her crew was to follow where they led.
Two soldiers jumped into the corridor, their weapons at the ready, but neither one was prepared for the sight of the aliens. They both stared, wide eyed, their pistols held slack in their hands. “You’re…under arrest,” one of the soldiers tried.
My alien escort didn’t hesitate. They continued on their way as if their path was clear. One of the soldiers fired. The stun blast passed right through the alien in front and slammed me in the shoulder. I spun back in pain. The alien behind caught me by the armpits and steadied me. With one hand extended towards the soldiers, it launched a blast of nearly invisible energy. All I saw was a wave of light-distorting haze that passed through the alien’s companion. When it reached the soldiers, they both collapsed. One soldier groaned as I stepped over him.
Further along, a glowing green wall blocked the corridor. This was the hull of an enemy ship. It had embedded itself into the side of the fleet carrier. The alien before me walked through the hull as if it were nothing. The one behind pushed me through. It felt like passing through a cold vapor. The interior was dimly lit. They strapped me to a chair, one that appeared to be custom made for a human passenger. I sat behind them, facing the front screen.
As the aliens pulled backwards, the walls of the fleet carrier re-integrated around the retreating ship. First the hallway gave way to a wall. The metal and fibrous insulation of wall material slid into existence across the sides of the curved screen and joined at the center as the alien ship pulled away. Then I saw the room behind the wall, and then the thick outer hull of the ship reformed before me.
“How do you do that?” I asked when I found my voice. “How can you just pass through another ship like that? How does a stun blast or a missile pass through you?”
They behaved as if I wasn’t there. One of them pulled its shoe off and scratched intently at its foot. The other stared out at the stars. They paid no attention to the ship’s controls.
“Why did you kidnap me?” I demanded. “Why am I here?”
To this, one of them turned back, and speaking in perfect English, said, “Your wife misses you.”
At this point in my story, Admiral Scargal’s eyes clamped down into critical slits. “Wait,” he said, putting up a hand. “They said they took you because your wife misses you?”
He turned to Kate. “Captain Yancey, do you know anything about this?”
“I reported to you about it a week ago,” she said. “One of the enemy actually spoke to me. The one that sings.”
“And you gave it personal information?”
“I said very little,” she said. “The alien asked if I’d sing with him. I declined, but I mentioned that my husband sang well and then, yes, I said I missed him.”
He stared at her a moment, then turned back to me. “Did they say how they knew how to find you?”
I shook my head.
One of the other officers, a short brick of a man with a black eye, cleared his throat and said, “Sir, they must have penetrated our data nets. Not only do they have our battle plans and navigational records, but they must have access to personnel records and flight manifests as well.”
Admiral Scargal nodded. “So it would seem, Commander Wallace. But why bring him here? What’s their interest in him?”
“Perhaps they wish to observe human mating,” one of the other officers suggested.
“We’ve got soldiers schtupping left and right,” Scargal said, “and the Buttheads aren’t shy about walking in unannounced. I doubt they’d learn much from yet another coupling.”
No other suggestions were presented, and they agreed to let the matter rest for the time.
I was asked about the current state of the war. Not much had changed. The Alliance fleet was focused on attacking every Green Ghost within Alliance territory and eliminating the enemy’s satellites over Manasseh. With the exception of Kate’s ship and the admiral’s cruiser, the enemy never shot back and never received a scratch.
“The Alliance officially believes you’re all dead,” I told the officers. “We never dreamed that the enemy was taking prisoners—if that’s what you can call this. All things considered, I think they’re treating us very well. Our cabin has everything but a hot tub.”
“Yet another mystery,” Kate said. “We don’t know their motives for providing such luxurious accommodations. The theory is that it’s a behavior experiment and that we are their…”
She stopped, her gaze shifting to something behind me.
I turned. A Butthead stood in the corner of the room. It had come through a wall.
“How long have you been in here?” The admiral demanded.
The alien blinked. It then walked to the admiral’s cot, took one of the two pillows, and walked away through the wall.
We all stared at the place where the alien disappeared. Then the admiral swore. “That irritating bastard,” he snapped.
“Why did he do that?” asked Commander Wallace.
Admiral Scargal’s lips pressed together in a thin white line. “Ignore it,” he said.
I intended to ask a few questions, but the admiral nodded towards the door. “Thank you for your time, Mr. Yancey.”
Outside the admiral’s cabin, the Butthead that West had called “Opera Man” sang an Italian aria. I stopped and listened. The alien appeared to put its whole self into the performance, its head thrown back, its face twisted in concentrated ecstasy. It was quite good, I must admit. Its voice was practically human with odd harmonic overtones. But the aliens couldn’t utter a syllable without the burbling sound of shifting phlegm coloring their words, and Opera Man was no exception.
It finished the song and bent over in an exaggerated bow, its floppy forehead nearly touching the ground. Unsure what else to do, I applauded. None of the soldiers responded, and I soon stopped. Opera Man sank onto the bench and lapsed back into listless silence.
I returned to our cabin. In one corner of the veranda facing the lake, a hot tub bubbled. There was no indication of a hasty installation. It appeared as if it had always been there.
Kate found me in the tub an hour later, gazing out at the lake. I reached for the switch to shut off the bubbles.
“A hot tub?” she said.
“I did mention it was lacking during my debriefing,” I said. “They didn’t waste any time installing it.”
She sat down on the bench beside the tub. “And you didn’t waste any time jumping in. You’re awfully comfortable with all this.”
I folded my arms over the side of the tub facing her. “Why shouldn’t I be? I’ve spent the past four months thinking you were probably dead. Now I find that you’ve been spending your time in paradise.”
She leaned back. “Paradise? Be serious. Did you think it was paradise when that alien walked through our room last night?”
“I wasn’t happy about it. But you were the one that hit the roof. I’d think you’d be used to it by now.”
She looked at me like I was crazy. “You won’t think so after a while. Nothing is sacred to them. Nothing is private. Sometimes they walk right through you.”
“So they don’t respect personal space. It’s a cultural thing. They can walk through walls, so they don’t see the need to walk around them. But they seem peaceful enough.”
“Peaceful?” Kate leaned forward, “You didn’t see what they did to my ship. In a split second, they’d hit every life support system, including the gravity generator, leaving us entirely at their mercy.”
“And then they offered to give you a lift to this planet. The fiends! And I’m guessing you shot first, right?”
“They’ve killed before,” she reminded me.
“Are you sure?”
We stared at each other. “Why did I marry a journalist,” she said. Her mouth twitched—almost a smile.
“Because I’m great in the sack,” I replied.
“The Manasseh colony transport,” she reminded me. “All destroyed. The Rutledge? They blew that ship out of the sky. You’ve got to remember, Jamal, that we’re not on a pleasure cruise here. These aliens have killed at least a thousand Alliance citizens.”
“Allegedly. There’s no proof the aliens were responsible.”
“What would you suggest I do then?” I asked.
“Get serious,” she said. “Get more involved. You’re a reporter for goodness sake. Take a look around you and find out what’s really going on.”
“Do you think I can learn something that you haven’t figured out in the past four months?”
“Maybe,” she nodded. “You could provide a fresh perspective. Something beyond what the military can give.”
“My fresh perspective says that we’re not in any danger and the enemy isn’t as evil as you think.”
“And you can’t dig any deeper than that?”
“Maybe when I’m done in the tub.”
Kate sighed and leaned back against the cabin. “We’re going to attack their compound,” she said.
I sat up. “You’re not serious.”
“We have to try something, Jamal. They’re jamming our communications with the outside, and there’s no way off this planet.”
“So what you’re asking me for is a fresh perspective on how to kill them?”
“Well, nothing we’ve tried has worked.”
“Have you tried talking to them?”
“They don’t respond intelligibly.”
“Maybe they’re shy.”
Kate glared at me again.
“I’m guessing weapons don’t work.” I nodded at the pistol on Kate’s belt.
She shook her head. “Same old story. Bullets go through them.”
“You’ve actually tried to shoot them?”
“Commander Wallace led a few soldiers to ambush a couple of aliens as they approached our camp. They used pistols first, then modified stun guns. After that, they tried beating them with clubs.”
“How civilized,” I said. “What happened?”
“Wallace wouldn’t say much. One of my crewmen tells me Wallace tried tackling one of the Buttheads. He wrapped his arms around its shoulders. Instead of fighting, it kissed him.”
“Kissed him with its big sloppy mouth. Wallace was so surprised, he fell off. It came at him then, and my source says it actually puckered for another kiss.”
I tried to picture what it would look like if a Butthead puckered. I couldn’t. “So then what?”
“Then Wallace jumped up and ran…right into a tree. He knocked himself out. You probably noticed his black eye.”
I sat back. “And what hope do you have of attacking the Butthead compound? If they kiss you for trying to tackle them, I’d hate to think what they’ll do if you get really violent.”
“I need you to be serious for a minute,” Kate demanded. “We need to find a weakness. You should help us.” She stood up. “Think about it.”
“They don’t seem aggressive to me. They’re more like clowns.”
She opened the front door. “Those clowns destroyed the colony transport, and the Rutledge. Remember that.”
Kate disappeared inside. I sat back, stared down at the lake and considered everything. Singing, kissing, butthead aliens who construct hot tubs at the snap of a finger and kidnap journalists to keep their wives company. Untouchable in space, uncommunicative in general.
Kate was right. I needed to find out what was really going on with our generous hosts—not to find out how to kill them, but to find out just what their real motives were.
The next morning, I found a notepad and wrote down a list of everything I knew about the Green Ghosts, a.k.a., the Buttheads.
1. Four decades ago, Alliance scouts begin encountering mysterious green ships in deep space. The aliens don’t respond to any attempts at communication and generally behave as if our ships aren’t even there.
2. Nineteen years ago, alien ships observed passing through an asteroid field unharmed. A year later, an Alliance cruiser fires on a green ship when it appears to be on a collision course. Alliance missiles pass through it without leaving a scratch. The aliens earn the nickname “Green Ghosts.”
3. Over a year ago, a colony transport bound for initial settlement of Manasseh sends out a distress call. Alliance ships Rutledge and Sierra sent to offer assistance. Rutledge arrives first. When Sierra arrives, they observe a Green Ghost ship obliterating every trace of the Rutledge. The colony transport appears to be destroyed as well. The Sierra fires on the green ghost ship and retreats.
4. Months of attacks by Alliance ships on the Green Ghosts in an attempt to clear them from Alliance territories. No damage. No retaliation.
5. According to long-range scans, the planet Manasseh, intended for Alliance colonization, appears to have already been settled by the aliens.
6. Four months ago, Kate’s ship is sent to attempt to engage the enemy using prototype plasma cannons. Her ship is disabled, its crew evacuated to Manasseh. Soon after, Admiral Scargal’s command cruiser is disabled in a similar manner.
7. Up close, the aliens seem benign, almost never speaking, barely acknowledging their human prisoners. But they bring us a cart full of provisions every morning and maintain our camp.
1. Why are they here on Manasseh?
2. Why did they bring us here? To study us? Entertainment?
3. Why does a species so technologically advanced behave so erratically?
I tapped my pencil on the last line, thinking. Where should I begin? Kate was already out (I’d tried to keep her in bed to make up for lost time, but duty called). She often spent her mornings supervising an observation stand overlooking the Buttheads’ compound. I’d have to seek answers elsewhere for now.
Outside my cabin, a Butthead stood perfectly still, its arms stretched out, its fingers splayed. It was apparently mimicking a nearby tree. It wore a blue tunic with black stains down one side. I’d seen this same alien hanging around our cabin on the previous day, standing on its head. I approached it.
“Nice day,” I said.
It didn’t move.
“So tell me, what do you do when you’re not hanging around our cabin?”
“I’m Jamal, by the way. Jamal Yancey. Do you have a name?”
Again, nothing. This wasn’t going as well as I’d hoped. I tried a different tactic.
“I’ve heard that things pass through you. Is that true?” I reached out and touched one of the alien’s thin sleeves. It swayed slightly. I pushed harder. It resisted.
“Seem solid enough to me,” I said.
It turned and smiled at me, its huge mouth curled up in a clown-like grin. I stepped back a pace. Be cool, I told myself.
“So, what is your species called?”
Its smile didn’t falter.
“We’ve been calling you the Green Ghosts, because of your ships and because things pass through you. But what do you call yourselves?”
He made a hissing noise. It almost sounded like disgust, but the smile didn’t leave its face.
“I’ve seen you around here before. I think you were doing jumping jacks in the common area when I first arrived.”
It lifted its arms and became a tree again.
“Well, nice talking to you.”
I turned away. Strike one. I’d have to do better than that if I was going to get anywhere.
My next idea was to climb part way up the mountain and get an idea of the layout of the land. Maybe a little perspective would help. I left the manicured grass of our camp, wading through the sea of yellow shrubs that ringed it. A soldier called out to me. “You don’t want to do that, sir.”
I turned. She sat at a picnic table a few yards away playing solitaire.
“Because in case you haven’t heard the animal noises at night, the forest isn’t safe.”
“But it isn’t night,” I said.
“We had a soldier wander out of camp by himself in broad daylight. Never came back.”
I shrugged. “But that could mean anything. Maybe he found something wonderful out there.”
She placed a card on a pile. “Well I’m not going to go find out.”
I turned back to the woods. “I won’t go that far.”
She had me nervous, but I wouldn’t learn anything if I didn’t take some risks. I’d just step into the woods a little ways and see what happens.
As I passed into the trees, a flock of leather-wing raptors cried and took flight above me. My heart nearly stopped. I bit back my fear and pushed onward.
I spent several minutes stomping a path through the dense foliage before I found an animal trail. I saw no creatures. I looked back towards the camp, only thirty yards behind me. My retreat could be quick if I encountered any threats in the trees. I walked up the trail. The Manasseh atmosphere was more oxygen rich than I was accustomed to. I climbed the steep path with increasing confidence, finding that I didn’t get nearly as winded as I would have expected. I’d followed the trail about two hundred yards when I heard a raspy growl. It came from behind me.
I turned. Something dark lurked in the shadows down the path. I didn’t wait to find out what it was. I ran, straight up the mountain, unable to think of an alternative. The trees opened up in front of me, but the brambles to either side of the trail were too thick and tangled for me to take an easier course laterally along the mountain. My heart pounded and I was losing breath, rich oxygen or not. I dared a glance back once and saw a dark form galloping towards me on too many legs. It was gaining on me.
The trail before me bent to one side below a steep dirt incline. I wasn’t going to outrun this beast. I decided to try out-climbing it. I scrambled up the incline as far as I could on two feet and then heaved upwards on all fours. The dirt slid down as I climbed. It felt like I was swimming upstream. I was about eight feet above the path when the creature rasped an angry roar below. I turned. It was about the size of a tiger, with a head that looked like an insect’s, but drawn into a panther-like muzzle. Its body was a black exoskeleton with tufts of hair poking from the seams. It had at least eight, maybe more spindly legs, all crouching below, preparing to spring at me.
I reached towards a ledge above me. The creature leapt and batted at my foot. The dirt caved in under it, sending it tumbling back to the path.
My fingers were an inch from the ledge. The creature prepared for another jump.
Thin fingers wrapped around my wrist and pulled me upwards, just as I felt another swipe at my shoe from below. My rescuer was strong, pulling me up over the lip of the cliff and onto a broad flat area above.
It was a Butthead. It dropped me, then turned away to crouch at the cliff side and stare out at the lake.
I glanced over the edge. The spider panther thing stared up at me with hollow, insectile eyes. It gave another dry growl and then launched itself down trail towards the woods.
“Thanks…a lot,” I said.
My rescuer wore a tattered uniform. Unlike the unblemished skin of its fellow Buttheads, its skin was scarred, and there were fresh scratches on its hands. What’s more, its face bore the sags and lines I’d associate with old age. There was a constant tremor in its neck.
Above the cliff was a wide flat clearing below yet another steep incline. Recessed into the rocks of the mountainside at the far end of the clearing was a narrow cave opening. This alien’s home?
“So, are you a hermit or something?”
There was no reply of course. I gave up and looked out at the panorama. Manasseh was even more beautiful from this vantage: the blue-green foliage, the electric green lake sparkling out towards the horizon where it was swallowed by the haze of the heavy atmosphere. The sky appeared even more active from here. It shifted and swirled like it was part of a Van Gogh painting.
Below was our prison camp. From up here, it looked like a postage stamp in an otherwise green field, dotted with the tiny, copper-colored roofs of our cabins. A path ran down the shore of the lake until it reached another inhabited patch. That would be the alien compound. The ground there was bare yellow, rather than the lush green of our camp lawn. Two alien ships rested on an adjacent launchpad. Further inland from there at the base of the mountain was an open pit mine of some sort. I didn’t see any activity there.
My eyes followed the shore further south. Much further, there was yet another settlement, much larger than either of the two below me. I pointed. “Are they growing something out there?” I asked the alien. “That looks like crop fields.”
My rescuer said nothing.
“So what kind of food do your people eat anyway?” I asked.
I didn’t expect an answer, so I was surprised when it replied, “No food.”
“Buttheads don’t eat food. Haven’t had to for millennia. Nutrition implants.”
It spoke in a clear, unaccented voice.
“Don’t eat, huh? That’s…kind of a shame. I mean, you don’t go hungry, so that’s a plus, but what about the satisfaction you get from eating?”
“We have implants for satisfaction as well,” it replied. Then it made the phlegmy hiss.
I wished I had something with me to record the conversation. My notepad was still in our cabin. I asked, “So, if you don’t eat, then what are you growing out there?” I pointed to the distant fields.
“Then what is that out there?”
The alien rocked silently.
I stared out at the distant patch of land carved out of the forest. Humans? What humans? Kate hadn’t said anything about another camp. Were there more prisoners of war I didn’t know about?
“Where did the humans come from?” I asked.
“Okay, but how did they get here?”
The alien rocked. It hissed again.
This tattered, broken Butthead might be insane. How would I know? But it was still a reporter’s dream. It was actually speaking. I asked a few more questions about the other humans, but it said nothing. Maybe it didn’t know. I decided to switch gears.
“Are you a male or a female, or does that even apply to you?”
“Male. All of us male.”
“Just on this planet, right? There’s females on other planets?”
That seemed unlikely. Was it joking? Could I find another source to corroborate its claims?
“How do you reproduce?” I asked.
“Don’t reproduce. No need. Not for centuries. Plenty of Buttheads in the universe.”
“But what if you had to?”
He (I could comfortably call it a he) said nothing.
“But what about the primal urge to reproduce?”
“So you live for centuries?”
“Buttheads don’t age.”
“How is that possible?”
“Implants. Buttheads have an implant for everything.”
“You keep calling yourself Buttheads. What do you actually call yourselves?”
He hissed again and said, “Inevitable.”
“What does that mean?”
Another conversational dead end. I watched him for over two minutes as he rocked and grunted, gazing down at the land.
I said, “If your population is frozen, then you didn’t come here to colonize did you? What are you mining down there?”
“Can you tell me anything more about the humans over there?”
I sighed. “Well, can you at least tell me how to get down the mountain without being attacked by the spider panther things?”
Without looking up, the Butthead reached to his left, pulled a yellow shrub from the ground, the same kind that surrounded our camp, and handed it to me. “Spider panther things are allergic,” he said and hissed again.
I said, “That noise you make. Is that laughter? Joy? Contempt? Disgust?”
“It is all the same,” the alien said.
The interview was clearly over. I held the shrub before me and descended the mountain, nervously watching for SPTs.
As a journalist, I’ve developed a mental short-hand to allow me to fit more conclusions and speculations into memory. Part of that shorthand involves acronyms to speed the thought process along. SPT for Spider Panther Thing. I decided to call my source on the mountain the WOB for Wise Old Butthead. I hoped that was an accurate description—that BCA for Batshit Crazy Alien wouldn’t be better.
And I was definitely on the path of the journalist again. There was so much to find out here about this planet. I reached our cabin without another animal encounter and went straight to my notepad. I added the following questions:
4. What are the Buttheads mining?
5. Why isn’t anyone working at the mine now?
6. Who is at the other human settlement?
Kate got home just before sundown. She had a scratch on one cheek, and her uniform was streaked with mud.
“Looks like you’ve been mud wrestling,” I said.
“Nothing so agreeable. We were watching the Butthead camp when one of those…spider creatures snuck up on us. One of my men was injured pretty badly. The thing bit his leg before we could kill it. We had to carry him back to Dr. Mueller’s cabin.”
“You know those yellow shrubs that grow around the camp?”
She sat in a rocking chair and tugged at a boot lace. “Mmm.”
“They keep the spider panther things away. I guess they’re allergic to the stuff.”
Kate sat up and looked at me. “How do you know that?”
“A Butthead told me.”
I was embarrassed to admit that I’d left camp when I’d been warned of the dangers. I shrugged. “They all look the same to me.”
“That doesn’t sound like the reporter I know. You’re a stickler for knowing your sources.”
“At least I got the scoop on the shrubs.”
She bent and pulled at her boot. “It’s good to know. We’ll try it out.”
“So what have you learned, observing the Butthead camp?”
“Only what they want us to observe. They move from building to building. Their structures have no doors, so it’s difficult to know what goes on inside. Much of the time, they sit in one place for hours. It’s not much different than the way they behave in our own camp.”
I sat down across from her. When she pulled off her left boot, she leaned back and laid her foot on my knee—the universal sign for “Give me a foot massage.” I pulled off her sock and began rubbing.
“I’ve been told they do mining here,” I said.
She shrugged. “There’s a stone quarry uphill from their compound. It hasn’t been used since we’ve been here.”
Stone quarry. That was disappointing. “Why aren’t they up there? I mean, if that’s why they’re here on this planet…”
“We don’t know why they’re on this planet,”
“Are there any other human camps on this planet?” I asked.
She shook her head. “Not that we know of. The Buttheads jam all our communication, so if there was another signal out there, we wouldn’t know it.”
“Have you looked? Hasn’t Admiral Scargal sent out scouts?”
“Is this an interview?”
“It’s what I do.”
She leaned back further and groaned as I pressed across the arch of her foot. “We can only go so far on foot, Jamal. And those spider creatures swarm us everywhere we go.”
No scouts. No intel. As I rubbed her feet, I resolved to go on a much longer hike tomorrow. If there were more humans out there, I’d find them.
The next morning, I followed the trail laid by the Buttheads towards their own compound with tufts of yellow shrub tucked into my belt. It took less than a half hour to get there. Unlike our camp, there was no ring of yellow shrubs here. No doubt, if the Buttheads couldn’t be harmed by bullets, no SPT would be able to threaten them either.
It was a very different place from the human camp. No lush lawn, no orderly cabins or cobblestones. Here, the weeds were trampled down into dirt paths and scraggly bushes rose along cabin walls. Trees lay rotting and forgotten. The structures were doorless, dusty metal shells positioned haphazardly throughout the compound. A tall metal tower, most likely for communications, stood in the center of the camp, hanging at an angle. Overall, the compound looked like it was laid out by a tornado.
Just as Kate had said, the inhabitants didn’t appear to have any real purpose or direction. They walked in and out of buildings. They stood in place. A few of them sat in a circle, staring at each other.
I located a path that led up towards the mountain. It was old and disused. Weeds had begun to reclaim it. A Butthead sat beside it, his left leg bent over his right, stretching in a yoga pose. I said, “Is this the way to the quarry?”
He ignored me.
“What is the purpose of this compound?” I asked. “Is it for stone? Why are you here?”
The alien turned and blinked at me. I couldn’t read his eyes. Interest? Pity? Contempt?
I could try interviewing every Butthead in this camp. Maybe one would be willing to talk, just as the Wise Old Butthead had. I didn’t have time for that. There were only so many hours in the day, and I had a lot of hiking to do. I crossed the camp and found another path that ran beyond it. This I assumed would lead me to the next settlement down the lake shore.
I’d walked about two miles when I heard a twig snap behind me. I turned to find a Butthead standing 50 feet back. He wore a blue tunic with black stains down one side. It was the one who enjoyed playing tree outside my cabin.
“Are you spying on me?” I asked.
He stared at me.
“Could you at least tell me your name? If we’re going to keep meeting, we should be on a first name basis.” Pause. “Then I’ll call you Skippy and you can be my own personal stalker. Agreed?”
Communication was pointless. I continued on the path.
After another mile, I heard the rasping growl of an SPT. Another growl answered from the lake side. I appeared to be surrounded. I turned back to look to Skippy for help. He seemed unconcerned. He took a few paces and then stopped to watch.
I pulled two twigs of yellow shrub out of my belt and held them out on both sides.
The SPT from the lake side reached me first. Its shiny, scaled face snarled as it leapt towards me, but the instant it detected the yellow shrub in my hand, it seemed to change direction midair. It landed in front of me and sprang back as I thrust the shrub at it. Its legs clicked a retreat. It growled again, its hollow eyes glowing with sick light. Then it galloped away. The other SPT never appeared.
I turned back to Skippy. He stood perfectly still, watching.
“You don’t seem very concerned for my safety,” I said.
He actually replied. I think he spoke Chinese.
At mid-day, it occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to return to our own camp before dark. Days were short here on Manasseh. I’d reprogrammed my watch to match the time convention the military prisoners had agreed on, a 17 hour day with 61 minutes per hour. I’d left at 05:00 and it was now 09:40. Sundown was 14:57. I had a decision to make.
I stood on the path, debating. I shouted to Skippy, “How much further to the humans?” He replied in an alien tongue. Then he gave a sloppy raspberry, which might or might not have been part of whatever language he was speaking.
I’d take my chances with the dark, I decided. If the sun went down while I was on the trail, I’d just pray the yellow shrubs kept working.
An hour later, I reached a corn field, ringed by the yellow shrubs. The stalks were up to my neck. There was nothing alien about them. I might as well have been in Iowa.
The path trodden down by the Buttheads led straight through the cornfield. I followed it. The field extended about a hundred yards. Beyond it were rows of beets. Further inland, away from the lake, I spotted a field of wheat or spelt.
I found a man in a crude straw hat squatting in a tomato patch further on. When he spotted me, he nearly fell over. “You don’t look like you’re from around here,” he said, eyes squinted in the sun. “You some kind of alien in disguise?”
“Do they do that a lot?” I asked.
“You never know what they’ll do.”
He didn’t back away as I approached. “Well, I’m shorter than they are and my head’s a lot smaller. But I do have a Butthead following me.” I pointed my thumb over my shoulder at Skippy.
He glared at Skippy, who appeared to be tap dancing on a beet plant. “Butthead,” he said. “That what you call ‘em? That’s real funny.”
I extended my hand. “Jamal Yancey,” I said. “I’m from a prison camp down the lakeshore past the alien compound.”
He looked at my hand. “Prison camp? You some kind of criminal?”
“No. It’s just what we call it. It’s mostly military personnel that were captured in the war.”
“What war? What are you talking about?”
I told him a little about the war while he stood impatiently, glancing frequently down at the weeds below his feet as if his tomato patch could not survive without his constant attention. I asked to speak to someone in charge. He nodded, eyes cast to heaven, and led me not along the Butthead path that cut straight through the fields but on a circuitous route that ran between the fields at right angles. Skippy followed, his arms held out as if he were walking on a tight rope.
We passed other people working in the fields as we went, almost none of which noticed me or Skippy. Beyond a row of trees further along was a village made up of both the corrugated metal prefab structures designed for alliance colonization and the copper cabins built by the Buttheads. My escort (who never introduced himself) spotted a man in an Alliance officer’s uniform and beelined towards him.
“Picked this guy up in the field,” he said, thumbing over his shoulder at me.
The officer studied me. “You from the Alliance?”
“I’m not part of a rescue party if that’s what you’re asking,” I said. “What ship are you from?”
“I’m Lt. Darius, formerly of the Cruiser Rutledge.”
“Rutledge? The ship that was shot down by the aliens a year ago?”
His brows furrowed. “We weren’t shot down. We crashed into the debris field of a colony transport while responding to their distress call. The aliens rescued us.”
I blinked. A big piece of the puzzle had just shifted into place.
Darius was eager for me to speak to his commanding officer. I thanked the farmer and followed Darius along the dusty village street. Around us, people bustled along with purpose, pushing carts of produce, hefting bolts of textiles or boxes. Children dodged around them underfoot.
“The Alliance thinks the aliens destroyed our ship?” Darius said. “That’s nuts.”
I nodded “The story is, when the Sierra arrived to give rescue support, the Green Ghost ship was vaporizing what was left of the Rutledge.”
“Well, they were probably doing it as a courtesy.”
“If you were there, you’d understand. We were responding to a colony transport distress call. We went to the coordinates they’d broadcast and flew right into the debris field of the colony ship. It had exploded before we got there. Several chunks of the ship collided with ours, and it looked like we were about to suffer the same fate. Then the Green Ghost ship showed up. They’d already evacuated the colony ship and dropped them all here on Manasseh. They did the same for us. The aliens don’t talk much, but I’m guessing our ship exploded as well. If they were vaporizing what was left, they probably just wanted to avoid another accident like ours.”
We stopped at a corner to wait for a passing transport. “So all of the colonists and all of the Rutledge crew are here?” I asked.
Lt. Darius shook his head. “On the Rutledge, we took a lot of casualties in the accident. The aliens helped to heal a lot of our wounded, but they couldn’t do anything for our captain. He died a few months ago. I think the aliens’ leader was actually sad about that. It’s the only time I’ve seen a genuine emotion from any of these creatures.”
“The Buttheads have a leader?” I stopped in the middle of the street. It had never occurred to me that there would be an alien in charge.
Darius frowned. “Well sure. He used to come here often to see to our captain.” He continued walking and I followed. “We had a lot of them in our village in the beginning, helping us build and treating our wounded. They never talked, but they did all kinds of good. Now when we see them, which isn’t often, they just wander aimlessly.”
“What made them change?”
“Don’t know. We used to hear the hum from their camp. Captain said they were cutting marble at a quarry up there. But we don’t hear that anymore.”
We reached the commanding officer’s building. It looked like an old western sheriff’s office, a dusty building with a dusty porch, two windows facing the lake and a swinging door at the front. A bearded soldier sat outside on a bench, his uniform torn and stained in places and looking very un-military. He watched me pass with frightening intensity as I followed Lt. Darius inside.
Lt. Darius introduced me to the acting CO in the village, Commander Braddock. Braddock was a hard looking woman who showed little emotion as I described the war and our prison camp. She showed a little relief when I explained that we had an admiral in our company. “It’ll be good to get a little direction from the Alliance,” she said. “There’s no need for military here. Most of our soldiers work the fields now.”
There was a knock at the door. The farmer I’d met earlier stepped in, his ragged straw hat held to his chest. “Begging your pardon, ma’am, sir, but I picked up some more strays out in my field.”
He stepped aside, and Kate walked in with two soldiers. She did not look pleased with me.