THE GREAT FLYING SAUCER CONSPIRACY
WHAT DO HUMANS AND SPACE ALIENS HAVE IN COMMON?
AND WHY DOES THE FATE OF
GALACTIC CIVILIZATION DEPEND UPON THE ANSWER?
Thomas A. Easton
You are visitor number 3138
The oscillating wail of the siren jerked Professor Gabriel Croxford out of his depression.
The sound echoed from the cross streets. There was no way to tell where it was coming from until it was joined by another, and then another, and three blocks ahead a fluorescent yellow ambulance skidded out of Waldo Street onto Forrest Boulevard and raced toward the university.
The university? What building? What department? Who was hurt? He wasn't the only one who wanted to know. A crowd was swirling into the intersection of Forrest and Camden ahead of him, filling the street just where it split to flow around the vestpocket park that held the hugely sprawling Sam Adams Oak, the last remnant of the city's earliest days. Everyone was staring after the ambulance, buzzing with speculation, and blocking traffic so that it wouldn't help a bit to hail a cab.
At least half the crowd's members were disguised as the types of aliens that had supposedly haunted Earth's skies for most of the previous century. A few wore Reptilian masks covered with greenish scales and equipped with vertically slit pupils. Most wore the triangular gray masks of Greys, the traditional Saucerites, the eyes huge black slanting almonds. An occasional Grey mask sported a prominent nose; the rest had inconspicuous nostril holes. Gray jumpsuits too, close-fitting fabric intended to mimic the skin and/or clothing abductees said their captors wore. There were no Nordics, perhaps because they could not be told from normal humans.
Several of the Grey Saucerites were unfolding standard compads or using comlinks set into necklaces and bracelets, perhaps to look for news reports that would tell them what was going on. Two had whip antennae sprouting from the tops of their masks; one was chanting, "Earth to Mother Ship... Earth to Mother Ship..."
There was one masked child, surely convinced by his folks that his real Daddy was the Saucer Person who had abducted his Mommy. For a moment Gabe wondered if the poor bastard would ever know the truth, but then a siren-screaming fire truck lumbered around the corner after the ambulance, followed by a pair of blue-strobing police cars. Gabe tried to push through the thickening crowd, but it was useless, useless, as futile as the life that had had him so depressed just a moment before.
Someone cried, "They've landed!"
"No! They bombed Embassy Row!"
Laughter, a few exultant hoots, a surge of the crowd toward the university, an ebbing back, as if no one quite dared to face the truth. A black-and-tan litterbug dodged the crowd as it patrolled the gutter, snuffling along in search of coffee cups, candy wrappers, even soda bottles, snorting delightedly at half a bagel. Another, colored for all the world like a blue-tick hound despite its porcine origin, safely lurked beneath a muffin vendor's cart, stuffing a "Roswell Happened!" placard into its wide jaws.
He pushed. He shoved. He wished he had a com of his own so he could call the department office and just ask what was going on, but no. Didn't want to be bothered, didn't think it necessary. Not that he was unique. Plenty of other comless, even right here in the crowd, pressing close around those who weren't, straining for every scrap of news. They didn't look like they were getting much.
He squeezed between Saucerites and conventional pedestrians, felt a stranger's foot twist and leap beneath his own.
"Watch where you're going, asshole!"
Just a Saucerite, anonymous Grey mask above an expensive suit, a placard proclaiming, "Of course we're twitchy! We were abused by aliens!"
He should grab that sign, take it home to his wife. Twenty years of marriage, and now her therapist had her discovering repressed memories like chests of pirate treasure buried at the beach. New personalities, six so far, and Ruth insisted that they were as real as the Ruth he had married had ever been.
And somehow it was all his fault! Not her sadistic, perverted father's, but his as if he had been right there when she was six, as if he had failed to defend her, failed to stand up for her, failed ... No wonder he was depressed, no wonder he wanted that sign. Abused! He felt that way himself.
But the sign was gone, swept away on an eddy of the crowd. He pushed onward, squeezing between the victims of alien abuse and listening to the sirens still converging on the university. When at last he found an opening, he stretched his long legs, got ahead, began to lope as he once had found so easy, so natural.
But lunch was heavy in his belly, his briefcase banged against his thigh, and he was breathing hard, a stitch in his side, hell, in both sides, panting, wheezing even. Not the way it had been many years ago, when he had worked for the CIA. Not in that kind of shape anymore, but he wasn't stopping. The sirens were still wailing, urgency flooding his blood just as when they'd been shooting at him as he fled.
More fire trucks on the road ahead. A column of smoke visible now, rising above the university. Looked like it might even be over Campbell Hall.
Shit! That was the Anthro department. His department! He hoped his office was okay, his books and notes and files intact.
He hoped he was wrong. Not Campbell Hall, but the Civil Engineering Center on this side, or the Union beyond it. Both were older buildings, their photovoltaic panels confined to the roof, long overdue to be replaced. Newer buildings, like Campbell, had panels louvered like venetian blinds on their southern faces. Much more efficient, much more productive.
His conscience twitched. How could he wish disaster on anyone else? The repair work might mean more electric power for the university, for the city, but... But no. He didn't have to worry about that. No one would suffer for his wishes. The closer he got--wheezing worse than ever, goddammit!--the more obvious it was. Campbell Hall, a tower of black smoke, white where the water the firefighters were pumping onto the flames was billowing into steam. Campbell Hall, and his end of the building at that! His office!
And the smoke already thinning, the fire dying, out, nothing left but a dissipating cloud overhead. Ambulance just sitting there, rear door closed, crew leaning up against the side. No one hurt, nothing to do, just had to be there, just in case. Maybe a firefighter would need help.
Or maybe he would. Wheezing, sides burning, but no chest pain. Just out of shape. That was all. He hoped.
He didn't stop running until he could see the hole in the wall that had been his office window. The whole place hadn't gone, then. Just a little fire. His office, goddammit! No broken glass on the grass. Inside, surely, imploded by the pressure of blasting water from a firehose. Black smokestains up the brickwork to the third floor, another missing window. Around the corner, soot smeared across the PV louvers, little robot spiders already scrubbing off the sunblock. Not a thing on the ground floor.
The fire had started in his office! That realization felt like a blow between his shoulderblades. How could that be? Electrical? There just wasn't anything else, and it wasn't as if he were a biologist engineering "monsters" like the litterbugs. Or a psychologist researching alien abduction delusions. Or... They could get burned out, sure. They made people mad. But he was an anthropologist, for Christ's sweet sake! A specialist in the history of technology. As bland and uncontroversial as anyone, as any dean, could ask.
Someone said, "Fire bomb." He jerked around, saw a solid-looking woman whose yellow hard hat said she was the Fire Chief.
She saw him too. "Just a small one. Gutted the room. Fire got the one upstairs and part of the hallway outside. There's some water damage to the offices next door."
Across the street, watching the commotion, staring at him. Half a dozen of his undergrads. Terry Guttman, Brian Gortley. Lenore Hauser, the department head. Quigley, African studies. Aliman, Central Asia.
Not their offices, goddammit! Just his.
The one upstairs--he tried to remember, thought it was Emma Glucken's. On sabbatical, Brazil, studying the gold miners.
He could feel his nostrils flare as he tried to get more air. He knew he had the wide-eyed, panicked look of a deer in headlights. "You okay?" The Fire Chief grabbed him by the arm as if to keep him from falling. Glanced toward the ambulance.
He nodded, gasped for breath. "My..." From her grip, he thought she could hold him up if she had to, if he really began to collapse. "That's my office."
"Oh, shit." Her grip did not slacken.
"Any... anyone hurt?" He was staring at her now. Blue eyes. Mascara. No soot stains; a Chief could keep her distance. But a surprisingly dark mustache over her brightly lipsticked mouth. Emma had one just like it. He hoped she'd put her stuff in storage, but probably not.
A shake of head. "The place was almost empty. Lunch time. You okay?"
He managed to nod. "Just a shock."
"You must have lost a lot of work there."
He winced at the thought of how irreplaceable some of his books and files were, but he still managed to shake his head. "Lecture notes," he said, lifting his briefcase for her to see. "Presentation unit, in here. And a lot is backed up."
"You're sounding better." A final squeeze of the woman's hand, and she let go. He didn't totter. "They'll have a trauma counselor here soon."
He shook his head. He didn't need a trauma counselor! It was just a shock, that's all, he wasn't hurt, hadn't lost a kid or anything like that. Just a stitch, hands moving uncertainly, trying to make up their minds which side hurt worse, which side to clutch. Hell, grab the small of his back, both sides, not that it really helped at all. At least the gasping was slowing down, heart not racing quite so hard.
She had already turned away, back to her job, shouting orders, waving her arms. Time to finish up, wind the hoses, return to the station. Only the fire marshals would have any more work here today.
The crowd of Saucerites and others was not as ready to leave. They milled about, said they wished they could see in the window, see the damage, bitched that the building's doors were shut and "they" weren't letting anyone inside, said they'd heard no one was hurt, six people dead, two mummies barbecued--Hey! It's the anthropology department, isn't it?--no, not mummies, but Roswell aliens, out of the freezer at last after all these decades and of course, as soon as one of these goddamned bigdomes pushed the wrong button on the frammistator, boom! and a fire. Wow! Really! Yeah!
Gabe almost laughed. Who needed movies, television, novels, even comic books? People lived fantasies to top them all!
And here came Dean Morimbe toddling along the sidewalk past the yellow tape, short and tubby but somehow possessed of an air of importance that had the Saucerites stepping to one side as they never did for Gabe. "Dr. Croxford! Dr. Croxford! So sorry! So sorry!"
Gabe shook his hand, wondered if it was the Dean's breath instead that made the crowd move aside, and agreed that yes, it was a tragedy, no, he hadn't been anywhere near the place, and no, he hadn't been running any unauthorized experiments with strange and/or ancient technologies. A fire bomb, that was what the Chief had said. Sabotage, vandalism, protest unfathomable, and no idea who had done it.
"Yet it's not so bad," beamed the Dean. "Not really! Your new grant arrived just this morning."
As if that made a difference! Not so bad! He'd like to see the Dean's reaction to being burned out of his office. Polished wood and plush carpet, paintings, prints, wide windows looking toward the river.
He struggled to be polite. "New grant?" He couldn't think what that might be. Total blank. Dead stop. He hadn't even sent in a grant application lately.
"Already! And it has a generous overhead allowance. Yes, it does! We can rebuild your office, you can restock your bookshelves, replace your curios. And there's plenty left over for your new project! Your salary, your postdoc, a few meetings, et cetera."
Page charges if he ever published, for instance. Even on-line journals wanted them.
Not that he knew what journals might be involved. Hell, he didn't even know what his new project was!
"Did you lose much work?"
He shook his head, sighed, decided to keep his mouth shut. He could figure it all out later. He'd calm down, the memory would return. He hoped. "Plenty of backups." Departmental server. Commercial archive. He gestured, one hand saying that it was no big deal, just a momentary setback. "A few days..."
"Once we get the place cleaned up, eh?" Dean Morimbe laughed.
"Except for the curios." Mementoes, souvenirs of trips to meetings in Beijing, Berlin, Moscow, Washington, framed degrees. Not very many, just a few to fill the spaces between the tiers of shelving for books and journals and loose papers. None of it truly essential to his life or career, but it was still irreplaceable, still a loss, a pain deep inside him.
More laughter. "But you have the memories."
Asshole! Of course he did, but it wasn't the same.
A gentle hand on his shoulder helped him keep his response inside. He turned, and when he saw Alia Gibran, he smiled.
"Old times, eh?" she said with a grin of her own.
"And we're not used to it any more."
Dean Morimbe was watching them. "You were both...?" Of course, he knew, or he would if he had their files on a screen in front of him. They had worked together once, two members of a team that had sneaked into Iraq, Kosovo, and Afghanistan to plant electronic listening stations. They had helped end one reign of terror, failed to end two others. One had even spread, come back to life after they had thought it squashed. Like a fire, he thought. Douse it with foam and water and leave a spark smoldering in a wall, waiting to grow and kindle and finish its mission of destruction.
"CIA." Gabe nodded. "It's been a long time, though."
Gabe didn't think the files would show that they had saved each other's lives a time or two, nor that they had slept together. It had started on those missions, and after them, when they were recuperating, getting ready for the next. Then he had quit the game, gone to grad school, met Ruth and married her, become an anthropologist, found a niche right here.
They'd sworn they would stay in touch, but she'd stayed with the agency. Mail couldn't find her, and she couldn't send any. Not even email. A year later, she too resigned and went to grad school, but he didn't hear a word of that until he saw her at a faculty meeting.
An English professor, of all things. A specialist in Romantic poetry. Slim, blonde with dark roots, dark eyebrows, miniature Christmas ornaments dangling from her ears, tattoo showing just at the edge of her neckline, another on her calf, others less visible, though it wasn't long at all before he had a chance to refresh his memory. Weathered skin, soft brown like a permanent tan, fine lines around her eyes and mouth. She looked neither dangerous nor professorial.
The Dean looked from one of them to the other, obviously wishing to hear more. Alia shook her head, finger to her lips. Hush-hush. Well, no, not really. Just giving the Dean a dose of the same thing the administration liked to dispense to the faculty, treating them like mushrooms, keeping them in the dark and feeding them horseshit. All the real secrets went public a long time ago.
Most of them, anyway.
He spotted a compact figure pushing between the lingering Saucerites. Just got off work, still wearing her EMT uniform. Very solid when he clapped her on the shoulder, hazel eyes, crinkly smile. "What happened?" Judy Fergus, his postdoc the Dean had mentioned, his teaching assistant. Giving Alia a look that might have seemed jealous if there were anything between her and Gabe.
But he was married, wasn't he? Faithful as could be, mostly, just a time or two with Alia after they met again, and though that was years ago he found himself thinking that he really didn't want Judy to know about it. She was more than a foot shorter than him; he'd have to sit down to kiss her.
"A firebomb," he said, feeling just a touch of fiery heat on the back of his neck. Was he blushing? "Someone bombed my office."
"Any idea why?" A cop, thirtyish, mustached, skin like old pine panelling. "Mendes" on the nametag. Tugging at his arm, turning him toward official business and a recorder wand, questions, questions, questions. "Has anybody threatened you? Hate mail or email? Nasty messages in your voice mail?"
"Not a thing." Gabe could only shrug and look bewildered.
"Have you flunked anyone who got angry about it?"
"Well, sure, but that angry?" He shook his head. He didn't think so.
"Sorry. The records were in my office."
"That's okay," said the Dean. "The school has records."
"Confidentiality," put in Alia. "They'll need a warrant."
"We can get one," said the cop, relaxed and easy, smiling. "Not a problem in a case like this. Is there anything else?"
Gabe shrugged. Should he mention that old CIA work? Had the cop heard him say that word? There might be leftover enemies from long ago, perhaps a Taliban survivor, but why would they come after him now?
But he didn't have to mention that. Judy was already opening her mouth, looking up at the cop and his wand, saying, "The alien..."
The cop's eyebrows twitched. "An alien? Really?"
Gabe sighed and nodded. Oh, yeah, and the grant. Now he remembered, and Judy really shouldn't have said a word about that. "It's all nonsense, of course. There couldn't be a connection."
An official sigh answered him. The wand twitched toward him as if to say, "We'll be the judge of that."
"One sat in on a class..."
to email author Eben Fralick.