by Joe Don Williams
This is a dry country. Since the Bugs came, there has been no precipitation. Now the trees and shrubs are bare, the goldfish ponds dry stones. The sky is cold and gray as a dead lightbulb.
I woke with my phone ringing in my left mastoid. "What is it?" I said sleepily.
"The Old Man wants to see you."
"Moving," I said. I went into the bathroom, injected a quarter grain of Motor into my arm, and took a shower. Then I took the tube to the University.
The Old Man has a degree from here, and it pleases him to have a title - professor of paleontology - as his cover. I met him in front of a diorama of the invertebrate sea.
"I want you to go into the Zone."
"To Kansas City, of course. To report on the activities of the Bugs, if any."
We call them the Bugs. Actually, we don't know what they look like. Their first broadcasts sounded like the stridulations of crickets. Their ships have never come any closer than the orbit of Jupiter.
But then they started meddling in our biosphere, introducing new species and new diseases. The population is dropping, although most people still don't know they exist: it's an official government secret.
Some of their projects were more subtle.
New land masses appeared. The weather has been changed. They put up another moon, altered the nature of reality in places like Missouri, Idaho, New Mexico, created the Zone.
Some events which were fictional, like the UFO crash at Roswell, and the Nazi Bomb, have become historical fact. No one knows how they were able to accomplish this - it seems to involve particle physics.
"If we just knew what they want," I said.
"Eh? Son, we may never know what they want," he told me. "All we know is that they are here"
"Anything else you want me to do?"
"You might look in on your mother."
When I left the Old Man, he was staring at the trilobites: plaster fossils swimming endlessly across a sea of faded blue paint.
It took me three days to reach the Zone. I spent the first night in a motel in Ohio. Every time I passed a stateline marker, I stopped and took a picture of it. Beyond Indianapolis, the sun disappeared and the roads were almost empty. Not too many people travel nowadays.
Some sections were completely deserted. Once I stopped for gas. The door was open and I stepped into the empty office. Everything was in focus. I felt like something very small, embedded in a thick glass paperweight.
When I got back in the car, I rubbed my fingertips together: they were slick and smelled faintly of graphite. I turned on the radio. Perhaps some weather had passed through here. Strange rain seemed to have fallen, soaking the whole countryside in dry, fluid crystal.
On the third day, I saw the hills ahead, rising above the flat prairie. The Old Man told me they were once the highest mountains on earth. Now they were eroded into low, abrupt cones; mostly clay and bare of grass.
I drove through the rocky region, crossed the river below the dam and the old powerhouse, and drove on into Kansas City.
I stayed with Jarvis. He and I had worked on some interesting cases. He was still an operator, but now he was cut off, in the Zone.
"I see things have changed here." I said.
"Huh? Things have not changed that much."
I asked him if he could put me up for a few days, let me sleep on the sofa.
"Sure," he said. "As long as you haven't changed."
That night it rained. His wife fixed dinner and afterwards we sat in the living room. It was very warm and moist here: I had noticed toadstools behind the refrigerator.
"Have a smoke," he said.
I pretended not to hear.
He offered me a cigarette, illegal in every other part of America. I took it, not intending to light up. It seemed to me discolored, as if it had been dipped in something.
"Please smoke," he insisted. "It will help you concentrate."
His own cigarette was burning more rapidly than it should have. A spark ate its way up one side.
"Every moment you smoke," he said, "is a moment without sex."
"That's crap," I said.
His wife was staring at me. I told him he was going bugshit. He cried and admitted this was so. I made him promise that tomorrow he would show me around the Zone.
The next morning Jarvis drove me to an area near the stockyards to see the Hole, which had appeared the week before.
At a certain point, we got out and walked. There were several other cars, and a crowd of teenagers stood in the road ahead, daring each other to go closer.
From here, I could see the lip of the Hole - an inverted cone of smooth sand, hundreds of feet deep - but not the bottom.
"Several people disappeared before they figured it out," he said. The slope is gradual, but once you get close enough, you become disoriented. Every direction is down."
Sometimes, he told me, people were seen wandering around the edge for several hours, calling for help. Eventually they were gone.
"I think it's getting bigger, too," he said.
"By a few feet every day."
"What can be the purpose of this?" I said.
"Maybe," he said, "it's just what it seems."
From here I could not see the bottom. Someone thought you could from an airplane. "It looks like that copper mine in Utah," one of the teenagers said. "What do you call it?"
Nobody knew. As I stood there, I remembered the ant lion cones of my childhood. Like the little craters that raindrops left in the dust, but different.
You edged in a grain of sand. At the bottom, a gray back could be seen, sending up spouts of sand, covering itself over and over. I don't know what the whole insect looked like. But if an ant wandered over the edge of the cone, he lost his footing and inevitably slid to the bottom.
"Be careful of women," Jarvis said. "The Bugs have introduced some females. That is, they appear to be females. Sometimes, their whole exoskeleton is composed of thousands of smaller arthopods. They seem to be forming some kind of massive hive. Whatever it is, the illusion is very convincing. Altered pheromones are introduced, to make sterile females exceptionally attractive, so we will mate with them and die off."
I went into a bar to get out of the rain. The bartender was watching The People's Court. He apologized: the cable was shut down, for some reason.
Outside, it rained harder. Crickets crawled across the damp floor. Moths circled the lightbulbs.
Someone on television said they were from Bullhead City, Arizona, and we both laughed.
A girl came in and sat down on the stool next to me.
"Buy me a drink," she said.
I asked her what she liked.
I ordered two bourbons, and we stared at each other. She had blonde doll's hair and rubbery, poreless skin. I offered her a cigarette and asked her name.
The bourbon came. It was like inhaling carpet tacks.
She asked me where I was from and I told her. We talked about all the good things here in Kansas City you couldn't get in the rest of the country. She wore a necklace of pop beads.
Her hair smelled of polymers, but beneath that was another, metallic odor - like old buildings, cockroaches. I had a tingling erection, like in a wet dream. When I snuck a glance at my gas detector, it registered positive.
"Know a place we can get real bourbon," she said. "Real catfish."
Her lips and her words were moving at different speeds.
I dropped a slug on the bar and we left.
The motel, which was right next door, glowed in the rain. The parking lot was full. The desk clerk, as unreal as she was, gave me a big smile and shoved the register across the counter.
Before I touched the doorknob, I slipped on my gloves. The lights were off, but the television set was on: some kind of sporting contest. I was careful not to look at the screen. The room smelled of hot grease.
On the dresser was a bottle of yellow fluid. "Germicide," she explained. "Keep it clean."
She kissed me. Her eyes held the promise of that delicious stink sex you couldn't get in the rest of America, the kind they were making illegal.
I turned to the mirror. On my lips I saw pink scales, pink pollen. I looked at her reflection: where the paint had rubbed off, I saw gray rubber.
"Hungry," she said.
The lights went out. I heard a creak as her jaw unhinged and saw it open, big enough to swallow my whole head.
I shot her full of needles.
She fell back on the bed, splattering jelly across the walls and floor. Her head burst exactly like a ballon, leaving an empty rubber bag on her shoulders. I moved rapidly, hitting the door, still not sure it would open. But it did. For a moment I stood in the parking lot, getting my breath. The neon sign smoked in the rain. Through the window I could see the night clerk staring off into space. I decided he was harmless.
Then I looked at the cars parked in front of the rooms. Some of them had been there a long time. The tires were flat, the bodies rusted. There were more in the vacant lot behind, most of them with out-of-state plates. I decided to go back in.
I heard the clicking of mandibles in the darkness as I opened the door, got out my pocket flash.
They had big white heads, black eyes, looked like termites. Or ants. Most of her upper body was already gone. They would have done the same to me, left nothing but white bones, picked clean, in the garbage cans in the alley. I took another step toward them, and they withdrew into their holes in the woodwork. But I could still hear them clicking behind the walls.
Typical Bug tactic: Humans checked in - but they didn't check out.
To be Continued