By Michael J. Jasper
23 September 2002
Part 2 of 2
The morning after the aliens moved into the Winnipeg slums, Netstream reporters descended on the city like vultures sensing a fresh kill. But with twenty-nine other cities experiencing their own alien integration throughout the Upper Great Plains, most of them in America and covered by twice as many journalists, public interest in yet another alien story was fading fast. Within three days of the arrival of the first group of Wannoshay, the last out-of-town reporter had left Winnipeg. Dozens of disposable Netstream cams dotted the buildings of the neighborhood, glued to the walls by reporters hoping to catch the first hints of any worthwhile Wannoshay news.
On her first visit a week after that cold night in March, Ally parked her newly-fixed clunker of a car on Toronto Street and swallowed a capsule of Blur. She entered the neighborhood flying high, but not so high that she wasn't constantly worried about being stopped by one of the loitering soldiers or plain-clothes police officers (she knew who they were, try as they might to act like they were regular people). But the soldiers on Ellice Avenue seemed more interested in keeping up a presence in the neighborhood and protecting the Wannoshay from the occasional mob of anti-integrationists than they were concerned with her passing by. The mayor of Winnipeg was talking about having the aliens start working someday soon.
As her camera recorded the renovations taking place in buildings that had been empty for over a decade, Ally was surprised not to see more aliens outside. The sun had been bright all morning, but clouds had gathered as she wandered up and down Ellice. With the sun gone, the air turned cooler, and Ally saw three aliens walk out of the old Thai restaurant she'd hidden in a week ago. The window appeared to have been replaced recently, as silvery holo-stickers were still stuck to the glass.
Up and down the street, more aliens came outside, sweeping off the sidewalks or picking up garbage that had blown onto the street. The three Wannoshay outside the restaurant were cleaning the new windows under the casually watchful eyes of a pair of young CF soldiers with rifles slung across their backs.
Ally's throat locked up when she was five meters from the aliens and the soldiers, and she stopped. Her legs wouldn't move her any closer. She could smell them, and she could hear their muscles creak as they scraped the holo-stickers off the glass and washed the windows.
The aliens were tall and made her nose itch. They wore second-hand clothes that didn't fit their bodies well -- cuffed jeans held up with rope belts around their thick waists, long-sleeved, patched flannel shirts in spite of the warmth of the day. Their long hair was thick and ropy, hanging partway down their broad backs. At the ends of their too-short legs, the feet Ally remembered so clearly from a week earlier were still bare, their long finger-toes clutching the concrete sidewalk like claws, as if they were afraid of being top-heavy and toppling over if they leaned too far one way or the other. They were well over two meters tall.
Thinking about the Wannoshay she'd seen on that dark, Blurry night in March, Ally almost kept walking past the aliens hunched over their work, silent in their concentration. Then she saw a pair of 'stream reporters across the street, attaching more cams to a wall and searching for an alien to talk to. Gritting her teeth, Ally felt a burst of energy from the Blur, and her confidence doubled as she thought about how great some real footage by a real person, not some clueless 'stream hack, would look on her Netstream.
"Hello," Ally said, stepping up to the three aliens in front of the restaurant. She made sure the tiny camera on her shirt was aiming at them. They towered above her, their long backs turned away from her. They continued working. "Excuse me," she said. "Hello?"
Two of the three aliens looked back at her, their heads swiveling around impossibly far on their long necks. The ropy tentacles on the tops of their heads quivered toward Ally as if smelling her. She rubbed her nose, trying to get the salty smell out of it.
Their hair moves, Ally thought, her heartbeat tripling. Holy-shit-their-hair-moves!
"I'm-a . . . reporter," she said, forcing herself to talk slowly and clearly despite the Blur in her system pushing her to go faster, faster. "I am working on a story about the integration process. For your people. Could I talk with you about your new jobs?"
She pointed at the sparkling clean glass of the window, then at the buckets, sponges, and squeegees around them. Ally had heard that the aliens knew some English, but they often preferred communicating with gestures, sounds, and the occasional word. She'd been secretly hoping they'd learn French first, but as usual the pushy Americans got their way, teaching English to the aliens, even those in Canada. Ally could see why talking wasn't preferable for the aliens -- their wide, lipless mouths weren't shaped the same as humans.' She made a waving motion with her hand in front of her mouth, trying to pantomime words coming from her.
The shorter alien looked at her intently with his dark eyes, and then the sideways eye in the middle of its forehead opened. Ally swallowed a gasp; for an awful split-second it had looked like the alien's forehead was splitting open, and then she realized it was the third eye she'd heard about on the Netstreams. It winked at her from its sideways socket, and Ally felt her mouth form a child-like grin of pure wonder.
"Yesh, we talgh," the short alien said, painfully slowly for Ally, as if choosing its words carefully. This alien appeared to be male and the oldest of the three in front of the restaurant. His gray skin was lighter, and he was more hunched than the others were. He set down his scraper, and Ally saw a series of interconnected triangles and one tiny circle carved into the back on his long hand. He raised his right hand palm up, dipping his head forward as if to say, "After you." Ally could have sworn she heard the voice inside her head.
"This-okay?" Ally said to the two soldiers, who had taken a few steps closer to her and the Wannoshay. The soldier on the left nodded. "Great-thanks," she called to them, feeling her voice speeding up again. "Thanks-great."
The other two aliens were females, if Ally was safe in assuming the bumps on their chests were breasts. Their skin was darker in color than that of the male who had spoken. They also set down their cleaning tools and all three aliens squatted low, resting their backs against the brick wall next to the window. They were now exactly Ally's height.
Relax, she told herself. The hard part's over.
"Let's-start-with. . ." Ally took a deep breath and willed her hands to stop shaking and screwing up the camera's shot. "Let's . . . start . . . with names. I'm Alissa Trang. Alissa."
"A-issha," the aliens repeated. The older male's voice was lower than those of the two female aliens, though all three voices were deeper than a human's. They all looked at Ally with intent black eyes.
"Close-enough." Ally pointed at the male and raised her eyebrows. "Your-name-is?"
The male only stared at her, his oval face blank. The look on his face made her think of Marlon Brando, in his last movie before his fatal stroke. He'd played a bald con man who faked Alzheimer's to fool his marks. One of the females snorted and twitched next to him, as if she were laughing. Alissa took a deep breath and tried to think. How do I explain what a name is? she wondered.
Feeling foolish under the gaze of those black eyes, trying to ignore the two soldiers, who had stopped talking and were watching her intently, Ally touched her chest and repeated her name. She reached a hand up toward Brando's chest. He didn't flinch, but his middle eye narrowed and his hair pulled straight back, away from her.
Ally raised her eyebrows and gave him her best questioning look. "Your name?"
"A-issha?" the male said. The smaller female gave another snort and knocked her head against the glass of the window, her tentacle-hair rattling against the window like hail. Her right foot kicked like Thumper from the old Disney downloads. Out of the corner of her eye, Ally saw one of the soldiers inch closer, and the two reporters across the street had stopped to watch.
She sighed. "I'm A-issha," she said, her hands starting to quiver again. The aliens repeated her name and touched their chests, and Ally tried to come up with a way to get her point across, while the short female continued twitching and tap-kicking her foot as if in response to Ally's edginess. Ally fought the urge to tap her own feet in response, the Blur making her pulse race.
Before she could come up with a solution, however, the short female's head dropped, her black hair clinging protectively to her head. Her thick body shuddered in a wave-like motion that made Ally feel sick to her stomach. A fleeting image filled Ally's head as the alien brushed past her, a horrific vision of a red-burning sun seen through a tiny window in a room of black metal. With a screech, the female alien spun on her bare feet and ran off down the street, away from the soldiers. Ally felt the alien's fear as clearly as she smelled the alien's peculiar, bittersweet odor.
"Go!" one of the soldiers shouted. The other soldier sprinted after her, while the first soldier glanced at the two Netstream reporters across the street. "Don't hurt her," he shouted after his partner, "just keep her contained and in the neighborhood. Use the--"
The soldier stopped in mid-sentence and looked at Ally and the remaining two aliens. His hand had been resting on a small green box on his belt, but he dropped his hand from the box as soon as he stopped shouting orders.
Ally looked away from him and watched the soldier and the female alien until they disappeared around a corner. She barely had time to check to make sure her camera had gotten a clear shot of all the action. She closed her mouth, which had been hanging open. She was shivering, the Blur starting to flash in her system.
What the hell? she thought, glancing again at the green box on the soldier's belt. Do they have some sort of devices attached to the aliens? Like GPS units, or stunners?
"Listen," the soldier said. The two reporters were walking off, shaking their heads. The soldier stepped up close to Ally, his face pinched and tight as he lowered his voice. "You may want to come by some other time, ma'am. Sometimes the Wantas get that way, get a little out of control." He nodded at Ally's tiny camera lens. "Let's just keep that little outburst under our hats, okay? Don't put that in your news report, all right?"
Ally nodded and flipped her hair out of the collar of her shirt so it covered the small camera attached to her lapel, hoping he wouldn't ask for her mini-DVD. She was shaking as the Blur worked its way out of her system, her heart still beating too fast for comfort. Keeping her distance from the two remaining aliens, who sat in motionless silence, she thanked them and walked back to her car, suddenly in a hurry to get away. Ally drove back to Sanford shaking and giggling with residual adrenaline and flashing Blur.
She had the footage on her Netstream in under an hour.
Nearly two months later, at the end of May, Ally Trang opened the door to her bedroom closet and discovered that the floor of the closet was completely covered by dozens of mini-DVDs. Each disc contained footage of her talks with the aliens she knew as Brando, Thumper, and Jane -- she'd never been able to explain the concept of names to them, so she'd made up her own for them. The discs lay scattered in the closet like flattened coins in plastic casings. She turned to her bedroom door and locked it, afraid her housemates would come barging in.
She hadn't told anyone in Sanford about her Netstreams. She was known only as "Wantaviewer" on the 'streams. At first the need to hide her identity was simply her instinctive, Blur-influenced reflex to keep all information from others unless forced to talk. The Netstreams were safe places for someone who wanted to be anonymous, as long as you covered your tracks.
Then, when she'd heard the news about the brewery four days ago, Ally's silence had become self-defensive.
The details of the explosion in Milwaukee on the 27th of May were shaky at best. After the smoke had cleared from the wreckage, three aliens who had just started working at the brewery as part of the government's integration plan had been found dead in the lower levels of the brewery. Their injuries had not been caused by the explosion. Another alien had been found a block away from the brewery, dead of some sort of shock. Some of Ally's friends on various Netstreams claimed that there had been a fight between the humans and the aliens in the brewery, while others were convinced the Wannoshay were simply out to get all humans, and the dead aliens had been planted there to confuse the matter.
Ally added that afternoon's discs to the pile and shoved all the stray discs back into her closet. Each mini-DVD had the date imprinted on the front, something her recorder did as soon as a disk was full. She thought for the hundredth time about organizing them, but then forgot about it the instant she turned her back on the closet.
Keying on the wallscreen, Ally dropped onto her bed in exhaustion. Her opinion on the issue of the explosions leaned in favor of the aliens' innocence. Despite their occasionally erratic behavior, she'd never had to fear the handful of friends she'd made in the alien neighborhood of Winnipeg.
Her gaze locked onto the wallscreen, where the remains of a grain elevator somewhere in South Dakota was burning despite the five fire trucks blasting water onto it.
"What?" she whispered. "Another one?"
The images flashed by faster, along with a voiceover. Very little was left of the elevator. Eleven men and women had been inside it when it blew, and all but four of them had been killed instantly.
A computer-generated face was superimposed on the image of the devastation. "The latest reports show that half a dozen Wannoshay workers were also working at the site at the time of the explosion." The face paused for effect. "All six alien workers survived."
Ally looked over at her closet door, a chill creeping over her despite the hot closeness of her apartment.
"Evidence," she muttered, wishing she had more Blur. Her fatigue after taking two Blurs and talking with Brando all afternoon was making it hard to think. She'd started skipping work to talk longer with the aliens working at the renovated restaurant. The short one she'd taken to calling Thumper had calmed down considerably in the past few weeks, but Brando, the older male, had been having problems remaining calm if he talked with her for more than an hour.
Ally stared at the news unfolding on her wall. There were strange similarities between the explosion at the brewery and the explosion at the elevator. In both cases, aliens had been working there for less than a month before the accidents happened (the computer-generated newscaster added a strange, nearly human inflection to the word "accidents"). Both explosions had taken place in large buildings with humans and aliens inside. Both times only humans had died. The dead aliens in the brewery had been discounted, and more theories had risen up about the aliens' uncontrolled emotional outbursts and tendency for violence.
Rubbing her face, trying to wake herself up, Ally knew she needed to make another trip to Winnipeg to see Jenae. She turned her head to look at her closet with its fallen piles of mini-DVDs. She jumped up and pushed all of them back inside, and then shut the closet door on them. After she collected her car keys and found her money card, Ally wasn't even surprised to note that, in a small corner of her fatigued mind, she was starting to believe that the aliens did have something to do with the destruction of the brewery and the grain elevator.
Sitting on the floor of Jenae's dirty apartment, Ally swallowed her fourth shot of lime vodka and gasped for air. "Why would they blow up our buildings?" she said when she was able, her voice sounding too slow for her ears. "Especially with people and aliens in them?"
Jenae rocked on the floor next to her, her thin white arms wrapped around her knees. She'd been using all afternoon. "Part-of-their-master-plan," she said. "Takin'-over, y'know?"
"Oh come on." Ally stared at the whitish residue on her shot glass, in the shape of her lips. "Why wait 'til now, after letting the CF treat them like such shit for the past half year?"
Jenae answered only by rocking faster.
Ally swallowed, waiting for the Blur to hit her. She didn't like being sober like this -- it made her imagine too many possibilities, none of them positive.
The two young women sat without speaking for a minute, until something rattled against Jenae's door. It sounded like skeletal fingers tapping on the dented metal, and it made a shudder run up and then down Ally's spine. Jenae was at the door and ripping it open before Ally could blink twice.
"Who-the-fuck--" Jenae shouted, but there was nobody there. A bitter smell floated into the room from the open door. Jenae looked up and down the stairs outside her apartment twice, her skinny body shivering as the Blur rushed inside her. Ally knew the feeling well -- an almost orgasmic shuddering as the heart beat as fast as it could to push the toxic chemical of the drug out of the body. In five minutes, Jenae would have a bitch of a headache.
Ally still hadn't felt the Blur hit her, and watching Jenae dance like a puppet on invisible strings on the landing outside her apartment, she wasn't sure if she wanted to feel it.
"Cold turkey," she muttered, and poured herself another shot of lime vodka. "I need to. One of these days, for sure."
Jenae spun and marched over to Ally as if she'd heard her. "Drink-up. We're-going-now."
Ally froze with the shot glass halfway to her lips. "Where?"
"To see those alien friends of yours." Jenae's voice was slow and deliberate. Ally shivered as she swallowed the sickly-sweet alcohol, almost gagging. With numb hands she set down the glass as Jenae filled her pants pockets with capsules of Blur.
"What are you going to do?" Ally felt like she had a mouthful of glue as she spoke.
"Expand-the-customer-base," Jenae said, her thin white face all angles and bulging eyes. She cackled as she spoke. "Wanta-Blur, Alissa? Or should I say, 'Wantaviewer'?"
There was a moment that night, the last day of May, when Alissa Trang realized she could stop it all. She could just walk away from the situation, taking the Blur with her, and nobody would get hurt. Ally saw the moment with the perfect, unfettered clarity of an addict at the peak of her high.
Jenae stood next to her, laughing and hugging herself as she shook her way through the Blur rush. Ally stared as Jenae held pink capsules out to the half-dozen aliens that crept up to them like hesitant forest animals approaching a watering hole.
No, Ally thought. That's wrong. They're not animals at all. They're just extra-cautious, freaked out because of the way Jenae's acting. There's intelligence in those black eyes. They know what sort of poison Jenae is offering them. And they want it.
One of the females, her squirming hair held back in a plastic clip, reached a short-fingered hand up to Jenae. Her long gray body rocked forward, and then back suddenly, as if she was trying to get her balance. The male next to her, wearing cuffed, second-hand jeans with holes and patches just like the other Wannoshay, also lifted a hand, palm up. The eye in the middle of each wide forehead remained closed. The night air was thick with the salty smell of the aliens.
The moment was there. Ally felt her own hand move, poised to either knock the Blur from Jenae's quivering hand, or grab the capsules and run. She could do it. She had to do it. Then she thought about the images on her Netstream, and Jenae calling her "Wantaviewer." Ally nearly bit through her lower lip as it curled up with fear and disgust.
The moment was there, but Ally allowed it to pass by.
Instead, the two Wannoshay took capsules and, following Jenae's pantomimed movements, placed them in their lipless mouths. Their black eyes widened as they swallowed. More gray hands reached for Jenae, the pink capsules disappearing.
"Now you fucking did it," she muttered, and at least three alien voices repeated her words back to her: "Nah you fuggin' did id," one said, like a deep-voiced man with a head cold. "Fuggin' did id," echoed another, higher voice.
The screaming began less than a minute later.
Spinning and leaping up and down in a mad dance of agony, the Wannoshay on Blur broke free from the crowd and uncoiled into the streets. Most drivers from the city avoided Ellice Avenue, but a new hydro car with American plates flew up the road as if on cue and barreled into two Blurred, madly-dancing aliens half a block away. The twin thuds hit Ally like hammer blows to her chest, and she tried her best to look away from the wreck. But as always, she had no control. She looked at the broken bodies and screamed along with the others.
Hesitant Netstream reporters began to arrive as the night went on, come to collect their cams and report on the madness in the wake of the explosion that day. Many of them never made it back out of the city once the aliens got their first taste of Blur. The drug seemed to activate the taste for violence in the Wannoshay, and nobody besides Ally got close enough to film Jenae passing out Blur like Halloween candy.
Ally's only consolation, in the midst of the chaos, was that her three friends were nowhere to be seen. She'd spent enough time with them -- shot enough footage of them -- that she felt able to pick them out immediately in a crowd of aliens. Also, there was a different feeling Ally got when Brando or Thumper or Jane was near, a slight ringing in her ears that was more of a tickle than a sound. Maybe it was the Blur, clogging her other senses of the aliens, but she didn't see or feel her alien friends, and that thought gave her a tiny sense of victory in this night of madness.
Amazed that she'd been able to get away from Ellice Avenue in one piece, Ally made it back to Sanford at half past midnight. She'd been sick twice on her way home, and the trucker had been nice enough to pull over to let her spill her guts both times. The driver didn't say anything when she climbed back into the truck, wiping her mouth. The big, gray-haired woman just looked at Ally with a look that was equal parts sadness and anger. Not at her, Ally knew, but at the deaths from the past week, and the Wannoshay.
Ally trudged toward her apartment from the gas station where the trucker had dropped her off. She cried silently, trying to cover her occasional sobs by humming a tuneless song. She felt the bag of Blur in her pocket, and a part of her wanted to throw the capsules into the sewer grate below her. Instead she pushed them deeper into her pocket and balled her hand into a fist. This was no time for drastic actions.
Casting her gaze skyward, Ally looked at the stars littering the sky. Somewhere out there was their home, she thought, wiping her eyes. She pushed the images of the burning elevator and the black smoke of the brewery from her mind. Now they're stuck here with us, with no way to get back if they even wanted to.
The thought made her bend over and heave, but she had nothing left inside her. Sobbing in spite of her tightly-closed mouth, her thin body wracked with cramps and shooting pain, she finally made it to her apartment around one o'clock. Her housemate Darius was asleep and snoring on the couch, while Anita's bedroom door was closed.
Inside her bedroom, Ally opened her closet door and gazed at the five or six dozen mini-DVDs she'd never gotten around to organizing.
"Evidence," she muttered, her voice hoarse. She set a mint tab on her tongue and felt cool ice fill her mouth.
Just like the capsules of Blur in my coat, she thought. It's all evidence, linking me to the Wantas.
Ally pushed open her window and slid her metal wastebasket in front of it. She fumbled for an insta-flame on her cluttered desk, and after breaking it in half, she used it to ignite the garbage inside the wastebasket. She was crying again, as much as she hated the tears. She'd flashed on the Blur long ago, and all she felt now was emptiness.
"Damn it," she whispered over and over again as the fire grew and she began moving discs from her closet, making a pile next to the wastebasket. "Damn it all to fucking hell."
She dropped the first disc, labeled 4/2/16, into the fire. Grabbing an old paperback dictionary she'd been using to keep her desk legs balanced, she ripped pages out to feed the fire. More discs followed, melting and giving off an acrid blue-black smoke. Ally fanned the smoke out into the summer air as best she could.
With the last disc in the burning mess of plastic and paper, something Brando had been trying to explain after the brewery explosion came back to her. She nearly moaned at the memory of her Wannoshay friend.
"I knew them," he'd said, sitting with his back propped against the wall of his furniture-less living room. His apartment had been cold enough to make his and Ally's breath steam, but he seemed to enjoy the chill. He pointed a stubby finger at his third eye, which had been closed all afternoon.
"The Wannoshay in Milwaukee, where the explosion was?" Ally stared at the design on the back of his hand, the triangles and the one tiny circle in the middle of them.
Brando bowed his head in his version of a nod of agreement. "They were . . ."
He stopped, his face going blank as it did when he was concentrating, trying to find the words in English. He put his right hand palm up, letting Ally know that the game of charades was on. When she grinned in response, Brando put both hands sideways in front of him, and then moved his hands over to his right, hands sideways again.
"Next to you?" Ally guessed. "Like neighbors?"
Brando bowed again. "And they were late." His last word came out sounding like "lake," but Ally had heard him say the word often in their recent conversations. It meant something bad, she thought, something worse than just being tardy.
As the stink of burnt plastic began to fade in her apartment and most of the smoke had cleared, Ally clicked on her wallscreen and spoke the name of her Netstream into her speaker remote. In less than five seconds the home page of her "Wantaviewer" 'stream came up, and Ally felt her face grow warm at what seemed now like a childish logo and naive stills of Brando, Thumper, and Jane and the rest of their people in Winnipeg.
"Admin page," she said into the remote. "Password atrang91."
A sparse white screen appeared, displaying lines of code on the left with tiny thumbnails of all the screens of Ally's Netstream on the right.
What does it mean if an alien is late? she wondered, squinting at all the streaming digital movies she'd uploaded in the past few months. There was the movie from the night the Wantas first came to Winnipeg, along with the dozens of interviews with Brando and Jane and Thumper.
They were neighbors, maybe, she thought with a smile, thinking of Brando's earnest face and his strangely effective gestures. And sometimes neighbors were late, for one thing or another. Late as in tardy. Or late as in dead.
Ally wondered if Brando was hooked on Blur now, just like she was. Maybe someday they could talk about that, like old friends sharing their battle scars. Maybe someday, she thought. Maybe if the Wantas don't kill us all, and we don't kill all of them. Still smiling through the tears sliding down her cheeks, Alissa Trang began deleting every single one of her movies from her Netstream.
Copyright © 2002 Michael J. Jasper
Author's Note: I'd like to thank Lenora Rose for her excellent details about the city of Winnipeg. Any and all inconsistencies or errors are wholly my fault.
Michael is "this close" to completing work on a novel entitled The Wannoshay Cycle, which is about the aliens in this story. His fiction has also recently appeared in Asimov's, Gothic.Net, Future Orbits, and The Book of More Flesh (upcoming). His previous appearances in Strange Horizons were "Crossing the Camp" and "Explosions," both stories of the Wannoshay. For more about him and his work, see his Web site.