Peter Crowther is a British journalist, short-story writer, novelist, editor, publisher, and anthologist. The founder of PS Publishing, he is also the recipient of the World Fantasy Award, the HWA Bram Stoker Award, and the British Fantasy Award. His work has been widely translated, and his short stories have been adapted for television on both sides of the Atlantic and collected in several collections. “Palindromic” was first published in the anthology First Contact, edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Larry Segriff, in 1997.
What seest thou else
In the dark backward and abysm of time?
William Shakespeare, The Tempest
It was on the third day after the aliens arrived that we made the fateful discovery which placed the future of the entire planet in our hands. That discovery was that they hadn’t arrived yet.
There were three of us went over to the vacant lot alongside Sycamore … that’s me, Derby – like the hat – McLeod, plus my good friend and local genius Jimmy-James Bannister and Ed Brewster, Forest Plains’ very own bad boy … except there was nothing bad about Ed. Not really.
We went up into that giant tumbleweed cloud thing that served as some kind of interstellar flivver – it had been at the aliens’ invitation, or so we thought: our subsequent discovery called that particular fact into some considerable dispute – purely to get a look at whatever this one alien was doing. Jimmy reckoned – and he was right, as it turned out – he was keeping tabs on what was going on and recording everything in some kind of ‘book’.
Not that he – if the alien was a ‘he’: we never did find out – was writing the way you or I would write, because he wasn’t. We didn’t even know if he was writing at all until later that night, when Jimmy-James had taken a long look in that foam-book of theirs.
Not that this book was like any other book you ever saw. It wasn’t. Just like the ship that brought them to Forest Plains wasn’t like any other ship you ever saw, not in Earth vs The Flying Saucers or even on Twilight Zone – both of which were what you might call ‘current’ back then. And the aliens themselves weren’t like any kind of alien you ever saw in the dime comicbooks or even dreamed about … not even maybe after eating warmed-over two-day-old pizza last thing at night on top of a gutful of Michelob and three or four plates of Ma Chetton’s cheese surprises, the small pieces of toasted cheese flapjack that Ma used to serve up when we were holding the monthly Forest Plains Pool Knockout Competition.
It was during one of those special nights, with the moon hanging over the desert like a crazy Jack o’Lantern and the heat making your shirt stick to your back and underarms, that the whole thing actually got itself started. That was the night that creatures from outer space arrived in Forest Plains. Then again, it wasn’t.
But I’m getting way ahead of myself here …
So maybe that’s the best place to start the story, that night.
It was a Monday, the last one in November, at about 9 o’clock. The year was 1964.
Ma Chetton was sweeping the few remaining cheese surprises from her last visit to the kitchen down onto a plate of freshly-made cookies, their steam rising up into the smokey atmosphere of her husband Bill’s Pool Emporium over on Sycamore, when the place shook like jello and the strains of The Trashmen’s Surfin’ Bird, which had been playing on Bill’s pride-and-joy Wurlitzer, faded into a wave of what sounded like static. Only thing was we’d never heard of a jukebox suffering from static before. Then the lights went out and the machine just ground itself to a stop.
Jerry Bucher was about to take a shot – six-ball off of two cushions into the far corner as I recall … all the other pockets being covered by Ed Brewster’s stripes: funny how you remember details like that – and he stood up ramrod tall like someone had just dropped a firecracker or something crawly down the back of his shorts.
“What the hell was that?” Jerry asked nobody in particular, switching the half-chewed matchstalk from one side of his mouth to the other while he glanced around to put the blame on somebody for almost fouling up his shot. Ed was never what you might call a calm player and he was an even worse loser.
Ed Brewster was crouched over, his shoulders hunched up, watching the dust drifting down from the rafters and settling on the pool table, his girlfriend Estelle’s arms clamped around his waist.
Ma was standing frozen behind the counter, empty plate in her hand, staring at the lights shining through the windows. “Felt like some kind of earthquake,” she ventured.
Bill Chetton’s head was visible through the hatch into the kitchen, his mouth hanging open and eyes as wide as dinner plates. “Everyone okay?”
I leaned my pool cue against the table and walked across to the windows. By rights, it should have been dark outside but it was bright as a night-time ballgame, like someone was shining car headlights straight at the windows, and when I took a look along the street I saw sand and stuff blowing across towards us from the vacant lot opposite.
“Some kind of power failure is what it is,” Estelle announced, her voice sounding even higher and squeakier than usual and not at all reassuring.
Leaning against the table in front of the window, my face pressed up against the glass, I saw that the cause of that power failure was not something simple and straightforward like power lines being down between Forest Plains and Bellingham, some 35 miles away. It was something far more complicated.
Settling down onto the empty lot across the street was something that resembled a cross between a gigantic metal canister and an equally gigantic vegetable, its sides billowing in and out.
“Is it a helicopter?” Old Fred Wishingham asked from alongside me, his voice soft and nervous. Fred had ambled over from the booth he occupied every night of the year and was standing on the other side of the table staring out into the night. “Can’t be a plane,” he said, “so it must be some kind of helicopter.” There sounded like a good deal of wishful thinking in that last statement.
But wishful thinking or not, the thing descending on the spare ground across the street didn’t look like any helicopter I’d ever seen – not that I’d seen many, mind you – and I told Fred as much.
“It’s some kind of goddam hot air balloon,” Ed Brewster said, crouching down so’s he could get a better look at the top of the thing – it was tall, there was no denying that.
“Looks more like some kind of furry cloud,” Abel Bodeen muttered to himself. I figured he was speaking so softly because he didn’t feel like making that observation widely known because it sounded a mite foolish. And it did, right enough. The truth of the matter was that the thing did look like a furry cloud … or maybe a giant lettuce or the head of a cauliflower, with lights flashing on and off deep inside it.
Pretty soon we were all gathered around the window watching, nobody saying anything else as the thing settled down on the ground.
Within a minute or two, the poolroom lights came back on and the shaking stopped. “You going out to see what it is?” Fred asked. Nobody responded. “I guess somebody should go out there to see what it is,” he said.
Right on cue, the screen door squeaked behind us and we saw the familiar figure of Jimmy-James Bannister step out onto the sidewalk. He glanced back at the window at us all and gave a shrug. Then he started across the street.
“Hope that damn fool knows what he’s doing.” Ed Brewster was a past master at putting everyone’s thoughts into words.
The truth of the matter was Jimmy-James knew a whole lot of things that none of the rest of us had any idea at all about. And anything he didn’t know about he just kept on at until he did. Jimmy-James – born James Ronald Garrison Bannister (he’d made his first name into a double to go partways to satisfying his father and partways to keep the mickey-taking down to an acceptable minimum) – was the resident big brain of Forest Plains. Still only 22 years old – same age as me, at the time – he was finishing up his Master’s course over at Princeton, studying languages and applied math.
Jimmy-James could do long division problems in his head and cuss in fourteen languages which, along with the fact that he could drink anyone else in town – including Ed – under the table, made him a pretty popular member of any group gathering … particularly one where any amount of liquor or even just beer was to be consumed. He was home for Thanksgiving, taking the week off, and there’s a lot of folks owes him a debt of gratitude for that fact.
Anyway, there went Jimmy-James, large as life and twice as bold – though some might say ‘stupid’ – walking across the street, his hands thrust deep into his trouser pockets and his head held high, proud and fearless. There were a couple of muted gasps from somewhere behind me and then the sound of shuffling as folks tried to get closer to the window to get a good look. After all, we’d all seen from the War Of The Worlds movie what happened to people who got a little too close to these objects … and we’d all pretty much decided that the thing across the street was about as likely to have come from anyplace on Earth as it was to have flown up to us from Vince and Molly Waldon’s general store down the street. Nobody actually came right out and said it was from another planet but we all knew that it was. But why it was here was another matter, though we weren’t in any great rush to find out the answer to that question. None of us except Jimmy-James Bannister, that is.
“Go call the Sherrif,” Ma Chetton whispered.
I could hear Bill Chetton pressing the receiver and saying Hello? Hello? like his life depended on it. It didn’t come as any surprise when Bill announced to the hushed room that the line seemed like it was dead. Then the jukebox kicked in again with a loud and raucous A papapapapapa … the needle somehow having returned to the start of the Trashmen’s hit record.
The street outside seemed like it was holding its breath in much the same way as the folks looking out of the window were holding their breath … both it and us waiting to see what was going to happen.
What happened was both awesome and kind of an anticlimax.
Just as Jimmy-James reached the sidewalk across the street, the sides of the giant vegetable balloon canister from another world dropped down and became a kind of shiny skirt reaching all the way to the ground. No sooner had that happened than a whole group of smaller vegetable things – smaller but still twice the size of Jimmy-James … and, at almost six-four, JJ is not a small man – came sliding down the platform onto terra firma … and into the heart of Forest Plains.
We could hear their caterwauling from where we were, even over the drone of The Trashmen telling anyone who would listen that the Bird was the Word … and, as we watched, we saw the vegetable-shapes come to a halt on the sidewalk right in front of Jimmy-James where they kind of spun around and then gathered around him in a tight circle. Then all but one of them moved back a few feet and then the last one moved back, too.
At this point, Jimmy-James turned around and waved to us. “Come on out,” he yelled.
“You think it’s safe?” Ed Brewster asked.
I shrugged. “Doesn’t seem to be they mean any harm,” Ma Chetton said softly, the wonder in her voice as plain as the streaks of grey coloring the hair around her ears and temples.
“They come all the way from wherever it is they come from, seems to me that if they’d had a mind to do us any harm they’d have done it by now,” said Old Fred Wishingham. “That said, mind you,” he added, “I’m not about to go charging out there until we see what it is they have come for.”
“Maybe they haven’t come for nothing at all,” Estelle suggested.
Somebody murmured that such an unlikely scenario could be the case but they weren’t having none of it. That was the way folks were in Forest Plains in those days – the way folks were all over this country, in fact. Nobody (with the possible exception of Ed Brewster, and even he only did it for fun) wanted to make anyone look or feel a damned fool and hurt their feelings if they could get away without doing so. With Estelle it could be difficult. Estelle had turned making herself look a damned fool into something approaching an artform.
“You mean, like they’re exploring … something like that?” Abel Bodeen said to help her out a mite.
“Yeah,” Estelle agreed dreamily, “exploring.”
“Well, I’m going out,” Ma said. And without so much as a second glance or a pause to allow someone to talk her out of it, she rested the empty plate on the counter-top and strode over to the door. A minute or so later she was walking across the street. It seemed like the things had sensed she was going to come out because they’d moved across the street like to greet her, swivelling around at the last minute – just as Ma came to a stop – and ringing her just the way they had done with Jimmy-James.
They seemed harmless enough but I felt like we should have the law in on the situation. “Phone still out, Bill?” I shouted. Bill Chetton lifted the receiver and tried again. He nodded and returned it to the cradle.
“Okay Ed,” I said, “let’s me and you scoot out the back and run over to the Sherriff’s office.”
Ed said okay, after thinking about that for a second or two, and then the two of us slipped behind the counter and into Bill’s and Ma’s kitchen, then out of the back door and into the yard, past the trashcans towards the fence … and then I heard someone calling.
“What was that?” I whispered across to Ed.
Ed had stopped dead in his tracks on the other side of the fence. He was staring ahead of him. When I got to the fence I looked in the directioon Ed was looking and there they were. Three of them. Right in front of us, wailing. I’ll never forget that sound … like the wind in the desert, lost and aimless.
The door we’d just come out of opened up again behind us and Fred Wishingham’s voice shouted, “Hold it right where you…” and then trailed off when Fred saw the things. “I was just going to tell you that some of those things had just turned around and headed over to where you’d be appearing … and, well, you already saw that.” Fred had lowered his voice like he’d just been caught shooting craps in Church.
Ed nodded and I told Fred to get back inside.
As I heard the lock click on the door, I whispered to Ed. “You think maybe they can read our minds?”
The things were about 10, maybe 12 feet high and seemed to float above the ground on a circular frilled platform. I say ‘floated’ because they didn’t leave any marks as they moved along, not even in the soft dirt of the alleyway that ran behind Bill’s and Ma’s store.
The platform was about a foot deep and, above that, the thing’s body kind of tapered up like a glass stem until it reached another frilly overhang – like a mushroom’s head – at the top. Halfway between the two platforms a collar of tendrils or thin wings – like the gossamer veils of a jellyfish – stuck out from the stem a foot or so and then drooped down limply about three feet. These seemed to twitch and twirl of their own accord, no matter whether a wind was blowing or not, and it didn’t take me too long to figure out these were what passed for arms and hands on the things’ own world.
I looked up at the first creature’s top section, trying to see if there were any kind of air-holes or eyes but there was nothing, although the texture of the skin-covering was kind of opaque or translucent … see-through, for want of a better phrase, and I could see things moving around in there, shifting and re-forming. Where the noise they made came out, I couldn’t tell. And we never did find out.
We watched as the creatures moved closer. Suddenly, the one at the front turned around real fast and the hand-arm things fluttered outwards, like a sheet settling on a bed, and, just for a moment, they touched my shoulder. There was something akin to affection there. At the time, I thought I was maybe imagining it … maybe reading the creature’s thought-waves or something, but I was later to discover that there was, if not an outright affection, then at least a feeling of familiarity on the creature’s part.
This confrontation lasted only a few seconds, a minute at the most, and then the creatures moved back away from us in the direction of the Sherriff’s office, the wing things outstretched towards us as they went.
“What did you make of that?” Ed Brewster said, his voice a little croaky and hoarse.
“I have absolutely no idea at all,” I said.
I kept watching because one of the creatures intrigued me more than the others. This one carried what seemed to be some kind of foam box, thick with piled-up layers of what looked like cotton candy. All the time we’d been ‘meeting’ with the leader – we supposed the thing that had touched me was the leader – this other creature was removing small pieces of foam which it seemed to absorb into its tendrils. It was still doing it as the three of them moved down the alleyway. Just as they reached the back of the Sherriff’s office, the leader put down its wings, turned around and, leaving the other two behind, moved up onto the sidewalk and out of sight.
I turned at the sound of hurried footsteps behind me and saw Jimmy-James running along the alleyway, his face beaming a wide smile. Ma Chetton was following him, her head still turned in the direction of the street to see if any of the creatures were following her.
“What about that!” JJ said. Then, “What about that!”
I nodded and when I turned to look at Ed, he was nodding too. There didn’t seem much else to do.
“Did they say anything?” Jimmy-James asked. “Did they say where they’ve come from?”
“Nope,” I said. “Not a word. Just that mournful wailing. Gives me the creeps … sounds like a coyote.”
“Or a baby teething,” Ma said breathlessly.
“Same here,” said JJ. “I tried them with everything I know … English, French, German, Spanish, Russian … quite a few more. And I tried out a couple of hybrids, too.”
“Like standing in the United Nations,” Ma Chetton muttered testily, her breath rasping. “Or hanging atop the Tower of Babel come Doomsday.”
“What the hell are hybrids?” Ed Brewster asked.
“Mixtures of two or three languages,” JJ explained. “In the old days, that was the way most folks communicated … I mean before any one single language or dialect had gained enough of a footing to be commonplace. And I tried them with all kinds of signs and stuff but they didn’t seem to know what I was doing. I thought maybe they would have known all about our language by listening to our radio waves out there in outer space. But it was no-go. I can’t figure out how they communicate with each other at all,” he said. “Unless it’s that wailing noise or maybe through that thing that one of them’s carrying around.”
“You mean the box-thing? The thing that looks like a pile of cotton candy?”
JJ nodded. “He’s messing with that thing all the time, changing it even as I’m trying to talk to them.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, “but did you notice he’s taking things out instead of adding to what’s already in there.”
“I’d noticed that,” JJ said. “I was wondering if that stuff is absorbed into him and enables him to communicate to the others. Like a translator.”
I shrugged. It was all too much for me.
Ed glanced around to make sure none of those creatures had sneaked up on him and said, “We figure they can read our minds.”
“Really?” said JJ. “How’s that?”
“Well,” Ed said, matter-of-factly, “they knew we were coming out here into the alleyway.”
JJ frowned and glanced at me before returning his full attention to Ed.
Ed gave a characteristic shrug. “Why else would they come on down here from the street if they didn’t know we were coming out?”
While JJ mulled that over, I said, “What do you figure they want, JJ?”
The back door to the poolroom opened and Abel Bodeen peered out. “Is there any of those things out there?”
“Nope, they’ve gone down to see the Sherriff,” I said.
Abel pulled a face and gave a wry smile. “That should please Benjamin no end,” he said with a chuckle.
The fact was that the creatures did please Sherriff Ben Travers, as it turned out. Or they didn’t displease him anyway. The truth of the matter was that the aliens didn’t do anything to upset or irritate anyone. In fact, they didn’t do anything at all.
“Why the hell did they come, Derby?” Abel Bodeen asked me a couple of days after they’d … after we’d first seen them.
“Beats me,” I said.
We were sitting out on the old straight-backed chairs Molly Waldon had left out in front of her and Vince’s General Store, watching the creatures wander around the town, just as they had been doing all the time. But I was watching a little more intently than I had done at first. The folks around town had become used to the aliens after two full days and nobody seemed to care much what they were there for. So it’s probably fair to say that people hadn’t picked up that the attitude of the creatures was changing. It wasn’t changing by much, but it was changing.
“You’ve noticed, haven’t you?”
I shielded my eyes from the glare of the late afternoon November sunshine and looked across at Jimmy-James. “Noticed what?”
He looked across at two of the creatures gliding along the other side of the street. “They’re slowing down.”
I followed his gaze and, sure enough, the creatures did seem to be slower than they had been at first. But it was more than that. They seemed to be more cautious. I mentioned this to JJ and Abel, and to Ed and Estelle who were leaning on what remained of an old hitching rail at the edge of the sidewalk.
Ed snorted. “That don’t make no sense at all,” he said. “Why would they be cautious now, when they’ve been here two goddam days.”
“Ed, watch your mouth,” Estelle whined in her high-pitched voice.
“He’s right,” agreed Jimmy-James.
“Who?” Ed asked. “Me or him?”
“Both of you.” JJ got to his feet and strode across to the post behind Ed and leaned. “They are getting slower and they do seem to be more … more careful,” he said, choosing his words. “And, no, it doesn’t make any sense for them to be more careful the longer they’re here.”
“Nothing for them to be nervous about, that’s for sure,” Abel said. “They’ve got us wrapped up neat as a Christmas gift.”
The aliens had effectively cut off the town. There were no phone lines and the roads were … well, they were impassible. It was Doc Maynard had seen it first, trying to get his old Ford Fairlane out to check on Sally Iaccoca’s father, over towards Bellingham. Frank Iaccoca had taken a bad fall – cracked a couple of ribs, Doc said – and Doc had him trussed up like Boris Karloff in the old Mummy movie.
The car had cut out three miles out of Forest Plains and there was nothing Doc could do to get it going again. So he’d come back into town for help, without even taking a look under the hood, and Abel, Johnny Deveraux and me had gone out there to give him some help. Johnny, who works at Phil Masham’s garage, had taken some tools and a spare battery in case it was something simple he could fix out on the road. Doc Maynard was not renowned for looking after his automobile.
When we got out there, Johnny tried the ignition and it was dead. But when he made to move around to the front of the car to open the hood he suddenly started floundering and dropped the battery. That’s when we found the barrier.
A ‘force field’ is what Jimmy-James called it.
Everything looked completely normal up ahead in front of Doc Maynard’s Fairlane but there was no way for us to get to it. It felt like cloth but not porous. JJ said it was an invisible synthetic membrane – whatever that was – and he reckoned the creatures had set it up around the town to protect their spaceship. Sure enough, the same barrier travelled all the way around town … or so we figured. We tried different points on farm tracks and woodland paths and each one came to a complete halt.
Like it or not, we were caught like fish in a bowl. But that didn’t seem to matter … at least not until JJ took a look in the creatures’ ‘book’.
“There he goes, if it is a ‘he’,” said Jimmy-James, pointing to the creature with the box of cotton candy. The funny thing was that the box now looked to have a lot less of the stuff in it than it had done at first. The first time we’d seen it, the thing had looked to be almost full.
“The other thing,” said JJ in a soft voice that made you think he was realising what he was about to say at exactly the same time as he said it, “is they seem not to be touching people with those … those veil-things.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “I guess that was what I meant about them being more cautious. Part of it, anyway.”
Ed snorted. “Maybe it’s a case of the more they see of us the less they like.”
Estelle rubbed Ed Brewster’s oiled hair and puckered up her mouth. “I’m sure they like what they see of you, honey,” she trilled without changing the shape of her mouth. “Anyone would.” It sounded as though Estelle was talking to a newborn babe sitting in a stroller. Ed must’ve thought so, too, because he told her to can it while he readjusted his quiff.
“We need to get a look in that box-thing,” JJ said.
“How we going to do that?” I asked. “And what good is it going to do us anyway? Just looks like a load of gunk to me.”
JJ stepped away from the rail and out onto the street. “That’s just it,” he shouted over his shoulder as he strode across to the creature with the box. “None of us has seen what’s in there, not up close.”
We watched the confrontation.
Jimmy-James stopped right in front of the creature and it turned around. Almost immediately, the little veil-arms wafted out as though blown by a breeze and settled on JJ’s shoulders, the wailing sound rising a pitch or two in the process. Then it started to back away, its arms still blowing free.
JJ shouted over to me to come on along. Ed Brewster stood up and moved alongside me. “I’m coming, too,” he said.
“Now you be careful what you’re doing, Ed, honey,” Estelle warbled.
“I will, Estelle, I will,” Ed said, with maybe just a hint of a sigh. And the two of us walked onto the street to join JJ. Which was how we got into the creatures’ spaceship.
The alien with the book kept on backing away from the three of us and we just kept on walking after it. Eventually, we reached the ship where we discovered two more of the creatures standing by the ramp.
The creatures then backed on up into the ship. We kept on following.
A few minutes later the three of us were standing amidst a whole array of what looked to be lumps of foam, all of various size, piled up on or stuck against other lumps. Some of the lumps were circular – cylindrical, JJ said – and others looked like tears of modelling clay thumbed into place by a gigantic hand without design or reason.
Up inside the ship, the things’ wing-arms were fluttering faster and more frequently than ever … and the alien that we reckoned to be recording the whole visit was mightily busy, removing small pieces of foam with the tendrils and absorbing them. When I glanced inside the box, I saw there was hardly anything in it.
Over to one side of the crowded room a wide lamp-thing stood by itself. Standing beneath the lamp, two aliens were seemingly absorbed in another of the boxes, their wings-arms fluttering like a leaf caught in a draft. This particular box was completely full, a collection of multi-colored shapes and lumps and pieces, all pressed into each other or standing alone.
“We need to get a look at that,” JJ whispered to Ed and me.
“Leave it to me,” Ed Brewster said. He walked across to the box and lifted it with both hands. “Okay if I borrow this for a while, ol’ buddy?” he said, waving the box in front of the two creatures.
The things didn’t seem to do anything as Ed stepped back and moved back alongside us, although their arms were fluttering faster than ever. Then, suddenly, the little arm-wings dropped limp and the two creatures turned around. As they did this, the creature standing in front of the other two in the center of the room waved its arms and then it, too, spun around.
“Let’s get out of here,” Jimmy-James said. “I’m starting to get a bad feeling about this.”
As we ran down the platform leading back onto Sycamore Street I asked Jimmy-James what he’d meant by that last remark. But he just shook his head.
“It’s too fantastic to even think about,” was all he’d say. “Just let me take a look at the box and then maybe I’ll be able to get an idea.”
We high-tailed it back to Jack and Edna Bannister’s house down on Beech Avenue and, while me and Ed drank cup after cup of JJ’s mom’s strong coffee, JJ himself pored over the contents of the alien box. It was almost three in the morning when a wild-eyed Jimmy-James rushed into the Bannisters’ lounge and slammed the box onto the table. Ed was asleep, curled up like a baby on the sofa, and I was reading the TV Guide.
“I have to look at the other box,” he said. “Now!”
Ed smacked his lips together loudly and shuffled around on the sofa.
I looked up from a feature on Gilligan’s Island and was immediately surprised to see how much Jimmy-James resembled that hapless shipwreck survivor. “What’s up?”
JJ shook his head and ran his hands through his hair. I noticed straight away that they were shaking. “A lot, maybe … maybe nothing. I don’t know.”
“You want to—”
“I’ve been through all of the usual coding techniques,” JJ said, ticking off on his outstretched fingers. “I’ve applied the Patagonian Principle of repeated shapes, colour motifs, spacing … I’ve run the Spectromic Law of shading relationships and the old Inca constructional communication dynamics…”
I held up a hand and waved for him to stop. “Whoa, boy … what the hell are you talking about?”
JJ crouched down in front of me and looked up into my eyes. “It makes sense,” he said. “I’ve made it work … made the patterns fit.”
“You understand it?” I glanced across at the box of jumbled shapes. “That?”
JJ nodded emphatically. “Yes!” he said. Then, “No! Oh, God, I don’t know. That’s why I need to check. And I need to do it tonight. Tomorrow may be too late.”
“I still don’t know what you’re—”
The resident genius of Forest Plains placed a hand on my knee. “No time,” he said. “No time to talk. It has to be now.”
I studied his face for a few seconds, saw the look in his eyes: there was an urgent need there, sure … but there was something else, too. It was fear. Jimmy-James Bannister looked as scared as any man could be. “Okay, let’s go do it.”
He stood up and looked at Ed. “What about him?”
“He’ll be fine. We expecting any trouble in there?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Okay. Let’s go.”
And we went.
The ship was silent and dark. JJ borrowed his old man’s flashlight and the two of us crept up that platform and into the depths of the creatures’ rocketship. The place was deserted, which was just as well. It didn’t take too long before JJ found the second box – the one the creature had been using all the time – and he scooped it into his arms and rushed back out of the ship.
We were back in the house almost as soon as we had left. The whole thing had taken less than ten minutes.
I watched as JJ sat in front of the new box – now containing but a few lumps and dollops of that clay-stuff – wringing his hands and muttering to himself. I couldn’t stand it any more and I grabbed a hold of JJ and shook him until I could hear his teeth clattering. “What the hell is it, JJ … why don’t you tell me for God’s sake.”
He seemed to come to his senses then and he quietened down. Then he said, softly, “It’s the aliens.”
“What about them?” I said.
“Theyre…” He seemed to be trying hard to find the right words. “They’re palindromic.”
“They run backwards … their time is different to ours.”
“Their time is different to ours? Like how different?”
“It moves in a different direction … backwards instead of forwards – except to them it is forwards. But to us it’s—” JJ waved his arms around like he was about to take off. “Well, it’s bass-ackwards is what it is.”
“What the hell is all the goddam noise about?” Ed said, turning over on the sofa. He reached for his pack of Luckies and shook one into the corner of his mouth, lit it with a match.
I didn’t know what to say and looked across at Jimmy-James. “Maybe you’d better tell him – us!”
JJ sat down at the table next to the two boxes, one full and one almost empty. He smiled and said, calmly, “It’s this way.
“I’ve broken the basics of their language. It wasn’t really too difficult once I’d eliminated the obvious no-go areas.” He pointed to the almost empty box. “This is the ‘book’ they’re using now … the one that’s recording everything that happens here … here on Earth.”
“Looks like a mound of clay to me,” Ed said, blowing smoke across the table and shuffling one edge of the box away from him.
“That’s because you’re you,” JJ said impatiently, “because you’re from Earth. To them, it’s the equivalent of a diary … a ship’s log, if you like.”
Ed settled back on the sofa. “Okay. What’s it say?”
“It starts at the very moment they opened the doors. It says they found a group of creatures standing outside watching them disembark … get out. These creatures, their record says, held instruments … they thought at first the things might be gifts.”
I frowned. “When was that? I never held no instrument.”
JJ leaned forward. “That’s just it. You didn’t. It didn’t happen. At least it didn’t happen yet.” He lifted the box onto his knee and pointed at the shapes inside. “See, it’s all arranged in a linear fashion, with each piece linking to others, building across the box in waves and doubling back to the other side. It’s like layers of pasta furled over on itself. But see the way that it’s arranged … you can pull pieces out of place and the gap stays. It’s an intricate constructional form of basic communication. I say ‘basic’ because I’ve only been able to pick up the very basic fundamentals. There’s much much more to it … but I don’t have the time to work it out. Not now, anyway.”
Ed tapped his cigarette ash onto the carpet and rubbed it in with his free hand. “Why don’t you have the time? What’s the panic?”
“The panic is that the record goes on to say how surprised they all were to find creatures—”
“Not half as surprised as we were to see them!” I said.
JJ carried on without comment. “It goes on to say how they came out and stood in front of us and nobody – none of us – moved or did anything. We just stood there. Then we all moved away and went to some structures. They walked around and looked at the outside of these structures and then went back into their ship. They were concerned that they had somehow created the situation by their ship’s power.”
JJ waved for Ed to keep quite and continued.
“Listen. Then it says that, after some early investigations – they say that much more research has to be carried out – after these early investigations, we came on board the ship and borrowed their log.”
“Yeah, well, we’ve got the log,” I said. “For what good it’s doing us.”
“But none of that other stuff happened,” JJ said. “This stuff in here…” He pointed at the individual pieces of clay … lifted one end of the carefully interwoven sheet of linked pieces and tiny constructions. “This only amounts to less than one single day. The creatures have been here almost three days now. There’s no mention of all the other things that have happened. And bear this in mind … the stuff in here is what’s left, as far as we’re concerned.”
I figured someone had to ask so it might as well be me. “How do you mean ‘what’s left’?”
“I mean, we’ve been watching the creature remove stuff from this box all the time he’s been here, right?” I nodded and saw Ed Brewster do the same. “And,” JJ continued, emphasising the word, “what we have here, now – and which represents what’s left in the box after he’s been removing the clay stuff for almost three days – is a record of when they first arrived. The creature has been removing the stuff from the top – I’ve watched him … so have you, Derby; you, too, Ed – and leaving the stuff at the bottom completely intact. And that stuff records them arriving.”
Ed and I sat silently, watching Jimmy-James. I didn’t have the first idea of what to say and I was sure Ed didn’t either. JJ must have sensed it because he started speaking again without giving us much of a chance to comment.
“Derby, the creatures … have you noticed how they seem always to be turned away from you when you go up to speak to them?”
We’d already figured that the clear part of the mushroom tops more or less worked as the things’ faces. And it was true, now that Jimmy-James mentioned it, that the things always had that part of themselves turned away whenever you went up to them.
“That’s because at the moment you start trying to communicate with them, they’ve actually just finished trying to do the same with you.”
“That sounds like horseshit,” Ed said. “Not even Perry Mason could convict somebody on that evidence.”
“And have you noticed how they keep facing you when they move away? That’s because, in their time-frame, they’re approaching you.”
Some of it was beginning to make some kind of sense to me and JJ noticed that.
“And we’ve all commented on how their attitude to us is changing,” he said. “You said they seemed to be getting slower … more cautious.”
“That I did,” I remembered.
“Well, they’re getting more cautious because where they are now is they’ve just arrived. Where they were when we first saw them was in their third or fourth day around us. They were used to us then … they’re not now.”
“Okay, okay, I hear what you say, JJ,” I said. “Maybe the creatures’ time does move in reverse, if that’s what you’re saying. I don’t understand it, but then I don’t understand a lot of things. The thing that puzzles me is why you’re getting so hot under the collar about this. Everything’s going to go okay: we saw them ‘arrive’ – which you say is when they left – and nothing happened in the meantime. All we have to worry about is our future which is their past … and they’ve come through that okay haven’t—”
I saw JJ’s face screw up like he’d just sucked on a lemon. He reached over and pulled the full box across to the edge of the table, held up another of those interlaced jigsaw puzzles of multi-colored clay pieces. “This is the previous diary,” he said, “the one before the one they started after they had arrived.
“You remember I said there was an entry in the current ship’s log about the creatures being concerned that they had somehow created the situation they found when they arrived?” We both nodded. “Well, that situation is explained in a little more detail in the previous record.” At this point, Jimmy-James sat back on his chair and seemed to draw in his breath.
“Okay: the log says that they were following the course taken by an earlier ship – one that had disappeared a long time ago – when they experienced some kind of terrible space storm the like of which had never previously been recorded. For a time, it was touch and go that they would survive, though survive they did. But when the storm subsided, they were nowhere that they recognised. After a few of their time periods – which, based on the limited information in the new book, I would put at quarter days … give or take an hour – there was a sudden blinding flash of light and a huge explosion. When they checked their instruments, they discovered that the ship was about to impact upon a planet which had apparently appeared out of nothingness.”
Ed looked confused. “So this explosion went off before they hit the planet?”
“I don’t get it,” Ed said.
I said to let Jimmy-James finish.
“There hadn’t been any planet there at all until then,” JJ said. “Then, there it was. And that planet was Earth.
“They narrowly averted the collision,” JJ went on, “and settled onto the planet’s surface. After checking atmospheric conditions they prepared to go outside. The log finished with them wondering what they’ll find there.”
While JJ had been talking I’d been holding my breath without even realising it. I let it out with a huge sigh. “Are you sure?”
The owner of the best mind in town shook his head sadly.
“But you think you’re right.”
“I think I’m right, yes.”
“And they found us, right?”
“Right, Ed,” JJ said. “They found us.” He waited.
I thought over everything I had heard and knew there was something there that should bother me … but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what it was. Then it hit me. “The blinding flash,” I said. “If before that blinding flash there was nothing and after it there was the Earth … then, if the creatures’ time does move backwards, and their version of their arrival is – or will be – our version of their departure, that means the aliens will destroy the planet when they leave.”
JJ was nodding. “That’s the way I figure it, too,” he said.
I looked across at Ed and he looked across at me. “What are we going to do?” I asked JJ.
JJ shrugged. “We have to stop them leaving … in terms of our own time progression.”
“But, in their terms, that would be to stop them arriving … and they’re already here.”
“Yes, that’s true. In just the same way, if we do something to stop them – and I see only one course of action there – then, again in our time, they never actually ‘arrive’… though, of course, they’ve arrived already as far as we’re concerned. What we do, is prevent their departure in our terms.”
Ed Brewster shook his head and pushed himself off the sofa onto the floor. “Jesus Christ, I’m getting a goddam headache here,” he said. “Their arrival is our departure … their departure is our arrival … but if they don’t do this, how could they do that … and as for palindoodad…” He stood up and rubbed his hands through his hair. “This all sounds like something off Howdy Doody. What does it all mean? How can we play about with time like that? How can anybody play about with time like that?”
“I think it may have been the space storm,” JJ said. “I think, maybe, their time normally progresses in exactly the same way as our own … although Albert Einstein said we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be railroaded about time being a one-way linear progre—”
“Jesus, Jimmy-James!” Ed shouted, and JJ winced … glancing upwards towards his parents’ bedroom while we all waited for sounds of people moving around to see what all the noise was about. “Jesus,” Ed continued in a hoarse whisper, “I can’t keep up with all of this stuff. Just keep it simple.”
“Okay,” JJ said. “I figure one of two things: either the aliens always move backwards in time or they don’t.
“If we go for the first option, then we have to ask how they found their way into our universe.”
“The space storm?” I suggested.
“I think so,” said JJ. “If we go for the second option – that they don’t normally travel backwards in time – then we have to ask what might have caused the change.” He looked across at me again and gave a small smile.
I nodded. “The space storm.”
“Kee-rect! So either way, the storm did the deed. But whatever the cause, the fact remains that they’re here and we have to prevent whatever it was that caused the explosion.”
We sat for a minute or so considering that. I didn’t like the sound of what I’d heard but I liked the sound of the silence that followed even less. I looked at Ed. He didn’t seem too happy either. “So how do we do that, JJ?” I said.
JJ shrugged. “We have to kill them … kill them all,” he said. He pulled across the almost empty box that we all reckoned was the alien’s current ship’s log and lifted up the few lace-like constructions of interwoven clay pieces. “And we have to do it tonight.”
I don’t remember the actual rounding up of people that night. And I don’t recall listening to JJ telling his story again and again. But tell it he did, and the people got rounded up. There was me, Sherriff Ben, Ed, Abel, Jerry and Jimmy-James Bannister himself. We walked silently out to the spaceship and weren’t at all surprised to see faint wisps of steam coming out from the sides or that the platform was up for the first time since … well, the first time since three days ago. As the platform lowered itself slowly to the dusty ground of the vacant lot across from Bill’s and Ma’s poolroom, I heard JJ call out my name.
I turned around and he held up his rifle, then nodded to the others standing there on Sycamore Street, all of them carrying the same kind of thing. “Instruments,” he said.
By then it was too late. The bets were placed.
As soon as they appeared we started firing. We moved forward as one mass, vigilantes, firing and clearing, firing and clearing. The creatures never knew what hit them. They just folded up and fell to the ground, some inside the ship and others onto Sycamore Street. When they were down, Sherriff Ben went up to each one and put a couple of bullets into its head from his handgun.
We continued into the ship and finished the job.
There were sixteen of them. We combed the ship from top to bottom like men in a fever, a destructive killing frenzy, pulling out pieces of foam and throwing them out into the street … in much the same way as you might rip out the wires in the back of a radio to stop it from playing danceband music. God, but we were scared.
When the sun came up, we put the aliens back on the ship and doused the whole thing in gasoline. Then we put a match to it. It burned quietly, as we might have expected of any vehicle operated by such gentle creatures. It burned for two whole days and nights. When it had finished, we loaded the remains onto Vince Waldon’s flatbed truck and took them out to Darien Lake. The barrier – or ‘force field’, as JJ called it – had gone. Things were more or less back to normal. For a time.
It turned out that JJ found more of those ship’s logs that night, when the rest of us were tearing and destroying. Turned out that he sneaked them off the ship and kept them safe until he could get back for them. I didn’t find that out right away.
He came round to my house about a week later.
“Derby, we have to talk,” he said.
“Oh, for cris’sakes, I—” I was going to tell him that I couldn’t stand to talk about those creatures any more, couldn’t stand to think about what we’d done to them. But his face looked so in need of conversation that I stopped short. “What about the aliens?” I said.
That was when Jimmy-James told me he’d taken the old diaries from inside the ship.
Walking along Sycamore, he said, “Have you ever thought about what we did?”
“No, not about us shooting the aliens … about how we changed their past?” Someone had left a soda bottle lying on the sidewalk and JJ kicked it gently into the gutter. The clatter it made somehow set off a dog barking and I tried to place the sound but couldn’t. It did sound right, though, that mixture of a lonely dog barking and the night and talking about the aliens … like it all belonged together. “I mean,” JJ went on, “we changed our future – which is okay: anyone can do that – but we actually changed things that, as far as they were concerned, had already happened. Did you think about that?”
“Nope.” We walked in silence for a minute or so, then I said, “Did you?”
“A little – at first. Then, when I’d read the diaries, I thought about it a lot.” He stopped and turned to me. “You know the big diary, the full box? The one that ended with details of the explosion?”
I didn’t say anything but I knew what he was talking about.
“I went into more of the details about the missing ship … the one that had disappeared? The last message they received from this other ship was at these same co-ordinates.”
He shrugged. “The message said they’d been moving along when they suddenly noticed a planet that was not there before.”
“Do I want to hear this?”
“I think the Earth is destined for destruction. The aliens were fulfilling some kind of cosmic plan.”
“JJ, you’re starting to lose me.”
“Yeah, I’m starting to lose me,” he said with a short laugh. But there was no humor there. “This other ship – the first one, the one that the diary talks about – I’ve calculated that it’s about forty years in their past. Or in our future.”
I grabbed a hold of his arm and spun him around. “You mean there’s more of those things coming?”
JJ nodded. “In about forty years, give or take. And they’re going to be going through this section of the universe and BOOM!…” He clapped his hands loudly. “‘Hey, Captain,’” JJ said in an accent that sounded vaguely foreign, “‘there’s a planet over there!’ And there’s no kewpie doll for guessing the name of that planet.”
“So, if they’re moving backwards, too … then that means they’ll destroy us.” The dog barked again somewhere over to our right.
“Yep. But if the aliens we just killed were going to do the job, how could the others have done it, too?”
JJ shook his head. “The co-ordinates seemed quite specific … as far as I could make out. That’s another problem right there.”
“The diaries are gone. They liquefied … turned into mulch.”
“All of it?”
“Every bit. But it was Earth they were talking about. I’d bet my life on it … hell, I’d even bet yours.”
That was when I fully realised just how much of a friend Jimmy-James Bannister truly was. He placed a greater value on my life than on his own.
“Which means, of course,” JJ said, “that we were destined to stop the aliens the way we did.”
“We were meant to do it?”
“Looks that way to me.” He glanced at me and must have seen me relax a little. “That make you feel better?”
“What is it? What is it that’s causing the destruction?”
“Hey, if I knew that … Way I figure it, they’re maybe warping across space somehow – kind of like matter transference. The magazines have been talking about that kind of thing for years: they call them black funnels or something.
“But maybe they’re also warping across time progressions, too … without even realising they’re doing it. Then, as soon as they appear into our dimension or plane, one that operates on a different time progression … it’s like a chemical reaction and…”
I clapped my hands. “I know,” I said. “BOOM!”
“So what do we do?”
“Right now? Nothing. Right now, the balance has been restored. But the paradox will be repeated … around 2003, 2004.” He smiled at me. “Give or take.”
We went on walking and talking but that’s about all I can remember of that night.
The next day, or maybe the one after, we told Ed Brewster. And we made ourselves a pact.
We couldn’t bring ourselves to tell anyone about what had happened. Who would believe us? Where was the proof? A few boxes of slime? Forget it. And if we showed them the blackened stuff at the bottom of Darien Lake … well, it was just a heap of blackened stuff at the bottom of a lake.
But there was another reason we didn’t want to tell anyone outside of Forest Plains about what we’d done. Just like nobody else in town wanted to tell anyone. We were ashamed.
So we made a pact. We’d keep our eyes peeled – keep watching the skies, as the newspaperman said in The Thing movie …
And when something happens, we’ll know what to do.
What really gets to me – still, after all this time – is not just that there’s a bunch of aliens somewhere out there, maybe heading on a disaster course with Earth … but that, back on their own planet or dimension there’s another bunch of creatures listening to their messages … a bunch we killed on the streets of Forest Plains almost 40 years ago.