Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Chip and the Snoop

by J. J. Barella



Living as close to the DCUP, or Democratic Capitol of Unified Planets, as Chip did, was a privilege. It was all the more reason to vote. It was where inclusion was prized and those who contributed to the general consensus served a real purpose, standing alongside their fellow citizenry; where the Democratic leaders from the many worlds around them came and decided planetary functions, created plans for commerce and the commonwealth.

He slid his legs out of bed and stretched, then yawned, his hair askew. He pulled the curtain by the bed aside and warm sunlight streamed in upon the rug.

Ever since the introduction of the Globe twenty years back there had been daily voting sessions wherein every citizen was required to partake at least once a day, more often than not in the morning or before midnight when peak volume was expected.

What the Globe did was it enabled the bearer to peruse the uninterrupted, static-free services of the net, cerebrally. A thin rectangular simserver that could fit in the palm of any hand, the Globe was the only practical gateway to a higher level of social interaction. It made decision-making that much easier.

Plans and issues were discussed and decided upon mind-to-mind. Content could range anywhere from curfew to fiscal budgets, to relationship compatibility and community maintenance, and at any moment subject to change, based on majority input.

Walking over to his closet he reached inside his jacket hanging on the door. He grabbed the simserver and prepared it for his morning voting session, connecting it to the back of his neck, keeping the band that would soon extend to cover the top of his head on standby as he brushed his teeth and wet his hair.

There were bags under his eyes as he watched himself in the mirror.

Chip liked to vote in the morning, when his thoughts were fresh, young in his mind. He would laugh at a few tangents; further his own debates. There never once was a dull session, because it doesn't take long to learn that opinions held the spark to ignite the fires.

And everyone loved fires.

A few of his modes and methods became trends, like the one where neighbors had to meet once a week and have dinner together, sharing stories and news. This virtually eliminated the unease of interspacial-couple-mingling throughout his community.

In fact it was how Chip met his neighbors, the Fergusons.

He wasn't much of an outdoorsman before that. He was retired and spent most of his time voting and planning and reading. And if he wasn't doing that he was spying on the houses around him through the blinds. There was always something to address.

After the Fergusons moved in, things changed. They were a gorgeous couple and had a few kids and fell right smack dab in the middle of his life.

They certainly seemed human.

For a while he felt a strong compassion for Lou and Evelyn. Even though they didn't talk much he had found they were very intelligent and witty when they did. They had three girls. Very close in height. Piercing blue eyes. Five, nine and eleven. He never learned their names.

It wasn't until a few weekly dinners had gone by unattended by the Fergusons that Chip started to get a bad taste in his mouth. Either the Fergusons saw just no point in them since returning from their trip to the Luxon Colonies, or they had were occupied by another, more important venture. It was just that they didn't strike Chip as being flakes.

He drank a cup of coffee at the window facing the Fergusons'. The blinds were drawn, but open, slivers of light upon him, his hair dripping on the rug.

He hummed to himself.

Waited.

As was the norm, Chip didn't expect to see anything, though he had been hoping for a ruffling of curtains, perhaps, the flash of a silhouette. At this point seeing any sign of activity from the Fergusons' would be progress.

Staring for a few more moments didn't help, so he turned on his heel and walked back through the kitchen.

After his session was over, Chip went outside and admired the morning. Breathed in its air. Birds chirped in the trees over the hushed sonic boom of frigates, exiting and entering subspace in the sky above the Capitol. He crossed the street to his mod. He was headed to the Old Town Diner off Cornelius.

Thanks to the law that was passed last Quarter that made everyone drive on the opposite side of the road he had had plenty of embarrassing appearances on the net, for lousy tickets and their subsequent court hearings. The Capitol felt the law was an accurate indicator of a citizen's adaptability to the changes occurring around them and they meant to use it to its full potential. On the whole he was pretty sure it came down to the bottom line.

His recently recalibrated 45EE Model Exhaustor hummed along. The windows were down, his arm hanging over the side, tunes playing from the custom cassette player he'd purchased in Bataglar. It was a well-sought-after trinket. It gave the mod a certain classy touch.

He was meeting Flenn. Flenn from Fiolo.

On the strip, under cover of the palms, their lush green fronds providing patchy shade from the high sun, Chip passed shops and boutiques that were just opening, signs flickering into brilliance. The air was hot and sticky. The taste of the sea was on his tongue.

He passed Bob's Body Shop on the corner and waved to a few of the servicemen, who noticed their job well done straight away as it cruised on by, the inner mechanics flawless and beautiful, like a retuned sonic fiddle.

He and Flenn had been doing some conferring on the subject of the Fergusons' more recent behavior as observed by Chip and eventually decided it was about time they hired some outside help to deal with the heavy work. There needed to be skill involved, a certain finesse.

They both agreed a Snoop would be best, someone who could be trusted to get the ins and outs of it, because for their sakes, he cared to find out what was afoot with the Fergusons'.

At the Diner, Whitney ducked under the hanging lamp to get over to Chip's table beneath the window and served him a cup of coffee, black, with a caramel drizzled biscuit on a side plate.

"Thanks," he said.

"Don't mention it, darling. New recipe," she said, pointing to the biscuit. She fixed her hair for a moment. Her green skin was a little pale this morning, but as usual, unblemished. "Cold butter. Less flour. Supposed to make 'em more flaky. Joanne's idea."

She paused, watched him curiously.

"Don't take this the wrong way Chip, but, you look like hell."

He looked around at the empty tables, rubbing his eyes. "Oh. Really? I was thinking the same thing," he said, smiling sardonically, looking down. "I'm just tired, I think. That's all. Just tired."

He yawned.

Then Whitney said, "Well, you know if you ever need anything--"

"Of course. Appreciate it," he said, the smile still there.

She winked her one eye and walked back behind the bar.

"By the way, make sure you vote on my move to disband the levy patrol, so we can have a community lake again. I've a great proposal for sanitation. Wait till you see."

He smiled and nodded.

She brushed a brown curl behind her ear then took an interspacial couple's order who had just sat down on a pair of barstools.

The overhead fans kept the warm air moving about the place, stirring up the dust, particles floating in the sunlight by the door. Smoke hung around. The smell of peppers and onions and grease wafted from the kitchen.

The bell over the door dinged. Chip looked up and saw Flenn strolling in; newspaper tucked under one of his four orange tentacles.

Chip didn't understand why he still carried around that infernal rag, with its wrinkled and splotched text, one dimensional discourse and photos. But because the Capitol still distributed them, places still sold them. Flenn had once said that he liked the feel of it between his fingers, but the truth was Flenn didn't have any fingers.

Flenn's rotund self sat down in a huff and he slid the paper in front of Chip, pointing to the title of a column, 'Luxon Colonies under Quarantine.'

"Read it, would ya'," he insisted. "You're not going to believe it--Oh, what's that?"

His eyes darted to the biscuit. He took out a handkerchief, dabbing some sweat on his wrinkled, stubble-covered forehead.

"Whitney said it was Joanne's new recipe. Haven't had a chance to try it," Chip said, looking up from the article at Flenn's eager expression, his neck forfeited by the rolls under his chin. He slightly held some semblance to a human. The clothes he wore helped. "Would you like some?" he asked.

"Don't mind if I do," he said, stuffing the hanky back in his shirt pocket and tearing himself off a piece with a quick swipe. He gobbled it down quick, Chip wondering if he even tasted it at all. "Wonderful. Just wonderful," he cooed, licking the crumbs at the corners of his oblong, tremendously toothed mouth.

Chip read the column, annoyed with the crinkles over the text, sipping his coffee, as Whitney came by and poured Flenn a cup, setting down a decanter of creamer and a serving jar of sugar.

There were more photos than there was exposition, superimposed images of a crab-shaped parasite, with whip like phalanges. Could have been anything. Its eyes were dark, stuck on the ends of curved antennae.

Zenths, it was what the authorities had called them. From the black planet of Phantanus, it was a species thought to be extinct. Understudied and relatively unknown. And how they found their way to Luxon, no one knows.

They were a bunch of horny, host-dependent aliens, whose primary function happened to be reproduction.

Who could ask for more--?

When he was through reading the article, having to turn a few pages forward to find the rest of it, Chip folded the paper in half and passed it back to Flenn, who had finished the biscuit and had Whitney bring him out another.

"I don't see what the big deal is," Chip said. "They aren't hard to miss, not walking around like that they aren't."

Flenn scoffed and said, "Didn't you read the part about the invasion? They were taking over bodies. How did you miss where it said they were crawling inside the citizenry's brains, latching onto their cortexes, controlling them?"

"I didn't..." Chip said, crossing his arms, sitting back in his chair, a thought growing at the back of his mind. He picked at it idly. "I mean c'mon, it doesn't make sense. There has been no examination of the bodies. There has been no visual nor cited proof of any kind."

"What more proof do you need?" Flenn said between chews. "The authorities and their scores of scientists infer that in some way the water brings out some kind of change in them. It's where they're strongest and most elusive. They say it's why so much of the population has been affected." He sighed, seeing his friend's dissension toward the topic. "I know it's hard for you to grasp and all, because your planet has never seen an invasion like mine has, but Chip, I'm just being realistic here. There's certainly a possibility--"

"Inferences. Like you said, Flenn," Chip said. "The scientists have merely inferred that the water is a viable supplement for them. And besides Luxon is a few lights years away. No creature is going to get that far in free-roam. Especially not a parasite. They'd need to occupy a host and man a vessel to even have a chance..."

Chip took a sip of coffee, looking entranced, mulling the finer details from the article over. Symptoms. Effects. The words: hive mind.

Luxon? Could it be? he thought to himself.

Flenn removed a cigarette with one of his tentacles and clicked a flame open on a dull bronze lighter with another. He blew out a stream of smoke and flicked some ash into the ashtray under the blinds, shifting in his chair.

"What is it? You all right?" he said.

Whitney came over and gave them both a refill. She asked if Flenn would like another biscuit. He gladly obliged. Asked that it be for transit. He was incorrigible.

Chip looked at Flenn and asked, "So this Snoop. Know anything about him?"

"Actually Joey knows a guy in that line of work," Flenn said. "He mentioned a 'Pete Wheeler.' He's from Canthemum. Supposed to be one of the best. Nose like a Surlbender. Eyes like a Tranlian Laproth. Had Joey send me his portfolio. Here, let me bring it up."

Flenn dug into his back pocket and brought out his Globe.

Chip looked up after a few lines of the bio. "Wow. This guy's the real deal," he said, sounding hopeful.

Looking farther down, seeing the Snoop's real name, in bold letters. "Vyteni Vytulu. Successful track record. Plenty of breakthroughs. And great picture," he scoffed panning down to see a tall purple thing. He was so thin he was barely visible in the data stream, blue eyes bulging from under a straw fedora.

No matter. The Canthemime was already okay in Chip's book. He was affordable and he looked the part enough.

"So? When can we meet him?" The Globe disbanded and shrunk back in rectangular folds.

"Well, good question," Flenn said, stubbing out his cigarette as Whitney dropped off the biscuit. "Thanks doll," he said, grinning ear to ear. "Tell Joanne these were a treasure." He set the box on the chair beside him. "The neighbors'll be in by the weekend, you can count on that." He chortled after her, looking back at Chip.

"I told Mr. Pete Wheeler he could find us at your place around noon sharp, today. Figured it wouldn't be a problem. Maruda's got the girls over for cards this afternoon anyway."

"Well, you're not wasting any time are you," Chip said looking at the glowing neon blue clock on the wall behind the counter. "Thanks for asking by the way."

Flenn shrugged as they got up, Chip leaving some creds for the bill beneath his mug.

This was going to work. They had just over an hour to wait.

Sitting on Chip's faded black leather couch they watched with fascination the figure that approached the driveway. Flenn informed Chip that he'd forgotten to say the man would rather park a few blocks over to avoid suspicion. Chip realized that it wouldn't have made a bit of difference either way.

Wearing an overly floral patterned button-down and strolling with a sort of cool confidence, fedora dipped low on his forehead, his swagger a sight neither of them had ever seen, the Snoop walked up to the door. Wasn't common this side of town. Or any town around, as far as they knew. Saw his kind on those riveting off-planet dramas, with the catchy opening title music. This guy was an eastern spaceboard masterpiece.

They couldn't wait to hear the Canthemime talk.

"Glad to see you found the place okay." Chip said opening the door.

The Snoop gave a curt nod and entered.

Chip looked at Flenn, his eyes lighting up. The endeavor underway. He could tell the feeling was reciprocated.

The three of them sat down, Chip and Flenn on the couch, Pete Wheeler on a hand-me-down wicker chair that once belonged to Chip's folks.

The artificial air unit above the fridge buzzed quietly, swirled Flenn's wafting cigarette smoke about the living room. The walls were of stucco, painted a pale red, covered in seawood frames, paintings of commercial frigates and luxury air liners. Chip, an avid fan of the particular artist's work, a former colleague of his, and having once himself been a pilot, loved to be surrounded by them. His favorite, a quad-winged, tri-engined frigate, dubbed 'The Chancellor,' hung in the bathroom above the excretor. It had been one of the first fleet of vessels sent to gather and transport raw materials from other systems via interstellar subspace. He had always been grateful that there was a frigate hangar just a mile from him.

Chip scratched at the skin around his glasses and glanced over at the Fergusons' house.

It was the Snoop who spoke first, removing his fedora and egregious shades, his eyes, likewise, larger than life. Whether naturally or surgically induced, Chip knew not.

"May I?" he said, through the voice converter under his chin, removing a packet of Galainian filtered stogies.

Chip said, "Of course," seeing the expression on Flenn's face.

The Canthemime passed them around. Chip declined, but Flenn, despite just having had one, and his questionable cholesterol, slipped one out. They stunk royally, the smoke acrid and thick.

"Now," the Snoop continued, laying his opened briefcase on the coffee table between them, a slim barreled Tracer with an extended grip strapped plainly to the lid, at which Chip and Flenn had gawked like academy brats, "Before we begin I should mention I've changed my rates. Taxation is a wench. I'm drowning here. So I should hope that doesn't change anything."

"Can I ask what we're talking about?" Chip said.

"Affordable. A 500 cred retainer for my work, then an additional 550 upon completion."

Chip raised his eyebrows.

"These Fergusons. How long have you known them?" Pete asked, curiously. "Flenn here gave me the basic rundown, but. I only ever need just a few minutes to do the investigation. Speedy, but just. I'd simply like to know a little more back story. After you share with me a little, I'll tell you my plan."

He moved the stogie to the corner of his mouth and intently gazed at Flenn, who did the same.

Chip told him as much as he could surmise. Took him through the sequence of events that had led up to the last few weeks; how he had seen shadows in the garage at night, heard all sorts of sounds emanating from inside; how he had not seen hair nor hide of his neighbors at any functions or events since their return from the Luxon Colonies at the beginning of the month.

He poured himself a glass of lemonade from the fridge and came back to sit down.

With the stogie between his teeth, Pete Wheeler's words were muffled, and in his cool demeanor, he said, "So you think they might be Zenth. I know their kind. And Luxon, yeah. I heard that place is crawling with 'em. Shame really. Went there a few summers back with some of the troop from home. I'll never forget. But, yeah, Zenths are slick, ravenous, diligent little SOBs that are uniform in thought, controlled by the Alpha, and only through its death can the rest be destroyed. But you watch; you're probably just fussing in your own head. It's not likely. What little water we have here doesn't compare to that of Luxon or any of the other hydrogenised planets in the nearby systems. Whatever the case may be, though, I've the perfect idea."

"What did I tell you," Chip whispered to Flenn, the Snoop looking up at them as he removed a packet and a clipboard. Chip held up a finger. "I just want to know," Chip interjects, "How do you expect to get inside? I told you, they haven't come out in weeks."

Pete took out a tan cap and an accompanying vacuum sealed shirt, along with a nametag that said 'Hal Fairweather,' with 'Stellar Sealer,' stenciled underneath it in subtext.

"'Never too late to be smart,'" he said, his smile glowing. "'Cracks; sun-fading; general wear 'n tear. Tear. Pour. Form. Seal. You name it. We do it.'

"Do you like it? Yeah? I have a way with citizens. And what's better is I've got a guy on the other side of the Mansebar system that can be down here in a day to complete the order--"

"Whoa. Hang on minute," Chip said looking between Flenn and the Canthemime. "What's your angle?" He studied the creature's face. "You didn't expect me to pay you so that you can get another cut? That's not going to sit well with me."

Pete took the stogie from his mouth.

"Look, Chip, may I call you Chip, I may not even need to get inside, okay." He gestures with his palms up. "But in the off chance that I do, and in the process, sell the concrete, you're going to have to trust me, and really do, please, trust me, it's just business. A means to an end. I mean, if it gets me the information I need to get the job done, then what's the difference?"

Pete clasped his hands together and waited, keeping eye contact with Chip.

After a moment Pete said, "I'll give you twenty percent off the top."

"Just give me half back and keep whatever proceeds you want."

"No dice, stranger. I only came over here because Flenn's boy asked me too," he said. He looked at Flenn. "Bright one you got there. You must be proud."

"Oh, trust me. We are," Flenn said smiling fondly, but it quickly faded when he saw Chip's glare.

Pete looked back at Chip.

"How about we do twenty-five percent."

"I'd rather do half."

"I got to break even; how 'bout twenty-seven percent."

"By the sounds of it," Chip said, shaking his head, "you're going to do just fine."

The Canthemime huffed. "Thirty percent and that's my final offer."

"Flenn? C'mon. Really?"

Flenn looked rather distressed to be in the middle of it, his tentacles furling around him like a cat's tail.

"Um--"

"Look," Pete interrupted. "How about this; we discuss the margin when the job's done. That way if I do end up turning a profit, we can make a decision based on that."

Chip was off-put; rather disappointed in the Canthemime, the game he was playing at. He wanted to call the whole thing off and do some more research. Perhaps hire another P.I. But was it worth the trouble?

"Fine. But only if you tell me, what the gun's all about?" Chip said, eyeing the Tracer.

Pete figured he was a bit paranoid. "What, this?" He picked up the gun, turning it in his hand. "In case things turn sour, I like to have an escape plan. I shouldn't expect them to. Hardly ever an escalation.

"But do we have a deal, or not?"

"We have a deal," Chip said, biting back some colorful vocabulary.

They shook hands over the table, Flenn's black eyes watching intently, relieved in the decision made.

The Snoop got situated and dressed and left without word. Chip and Flenn, exaggeratedly enticed, gazed through the blinds and across the yard to watch him circle the block before beginning his work.

At the Fergusons' front door, the very admissible concrete expert straightened his cap before he knocked. It didn't take very long, but the door opened and what resembled Lou stepped onto the doorstep.

There was a brief discourse, Pete's hands gesticulating. He went on for a few minutes, pointing to the man's driveway, his garage. Then, in a flash, he was yanked inside, the door slamming instantly.

Chip and Flenn looked at each other, their reactions mirror images of one another's.

Panic.

Chip ran into the kitchen, knocking over a lamp in the process. He swore and grabbed the Globe off the counter, thinking to alert the authorities.

He was going to go through with it, tell them that something had gone wrong next door; someone was in danger and they needed to send help immediately.

Flenn called him over to the window.

"Hurry," Flenn said.

"What?" Chip said preparing to go into session.

"It's Pete..."

Chip was reluctant to look. He peeked through the blinds and saw the Snoop's back, walking with his cool gait in the opposite direction, looping around.

Pete seemed fine, a little wobbly, examining himself as he walked beyond the house at the end of the block in the high sun, bright and glaring.

Although he never returned to the house.

Flenn did com him, however, and Chip piggy-backed the session. When Pete answered he was talking normally, his words just sounded hollow.

Flenn asked him if he was all right.

"Oh yeah. Never better," Pete said, chipper. "Sorry I had to leave in such a hurry. Other appointments. Don't worry I took care of everything. Got plenty to share. Nothing bad. Meet me tomorrow at the Old Town Diner. We'll review."

Flenn agreed and disconnected.

"We should call in a vote. Tonight. Something's not right. There needs to be a search warrant of that home issued," Chip said, pointing at the Fergusons'. "We have to know what's going on in there. Where did he go anyway?" His eyes were still wide with worry.

"He didn't say," Flenn said. "We shouldn't be too hasty, though. The guy could be telling the truth. You know how bad this could backfire on the net. Let's meet up with him tomorrow. Then we'll see."

"All right. Yeah. I hope you're right?"

Chip couldn't sleep that night.

He crawled under the covers before the sun went down, worried. A fetid, lingering string of images plagued his mind. Possible plots for their dooms, awful sequences playing out. One in particular:

An invasion of the Capitol and all its inhabitants.

In the kitchen, the failing light broke through the cracks in the window shades, throwing slender diagonals across the linoleum, the sound of frigates exiting subspace could be heard off in the distance like muffled cannon fire.

Chip used the Globe.

He searched: Zenth.

It was just as he expected. Essays by irreverent Theorists. Third-party accounts by journalists. There was hardly anything substantial, only bogus and biased commentary every next paragraph. He commed a few colleagues but they were unavailable. He didn't try Flenn, it was too early yet. He imagined all would wait for the twilight period to connect.

He found the writings of one man, a species expert, Shuman Laird, who spoke of a Cluster, or several hosts dwelling illusively, in wait for an Envoy, someone or something to take them further along. Something confident in its nature, crafty in its mind, for the Zenths first and foremost relied on this party to innumerate their existence indefinitely.

Upstairs, Chip pulled the white sheets up to his neck as he stared up at the pale red stucco.

Zenths.

His neighbors were Zenths.

At the Old Town Diner the next morning Flenn and Chip waited for over an hour for Pete to show up. Their cups of coffee were cold. Their ashtray full of smoldering butts.

Chip wasn't too thrilled. Not only did he miss his voting session this morning, but Whitney had not returned to the table once. Sure, the place was buzzing, full of interplanetary and human citizens, which was a bit odd, considering yesterday was the absolute opposite, as was every day prior to, but he and Flenn were "the usuals." They were friends. She always treated them well.

Despite being very peppy, more than was common, fluttering table to table, her hair perfect, face serene with a small grin, Whitney didn't hesitate skipping their table every time she walked by, without so much as a glare.

Chip recognized some of the customers; Jerry who lived off of Crawford, and Claire and Roger from just the other side of the block. Mr. Tate from the hardware shop down the street.

And he noticed something else too. Everyone was eating the same thing. One poached egg, that looked a little on the raw side. They spooned it into their mouths so prim and proper, their pinkies swinging out with every light thrust.

It was such a baffling phenomena that it couldn't be pure coincidence.

Flenn smoked and scooped his coffee cup up with a pair of tentacles. He was reading the newspaper, flicking the pages over effortlessly. He looked up and stared at Chip like he had forgotten something that would never come back.

"You're right, you know," he said. "I thought about it a little more last night before bed and decided to com Pete again and guess where he was?"

"You tell me?"

"I kept trying him and trying him, and it kept reverting to auto-message, so I went to have a cup of coffee and that's when I saw Pete across the yard..." Flenn said, trailing.

"Well...?" Chip urged.

Flenn reached into his pocket and grabbed out his handkerchief and wiped his forehead. He lit another cigarette.

"Pete was floating on his back in my neighbors' pool, the Wenks you know, his arms and legs spread out," he said, his face blank. "There were things floating in the pool water; lots of them. Lingering around him. The water was bubbling, and I swear he saw me and was smiling. It was too weird."

"What are you saying? That I was right?" Chip asked.

"Yes. I am. And remember when Pete spoke of the Alpha Zenth, that the only way to stop an invasion was to destroy it. I'm not sure how or why, but I think that--"

"He's the Envoy. He's not the Alpha."

"Envoy?" Flenn said, surprised.

"I would imagine the Alpha's off-planet somewhere and the Fergusons were used as hosts to get here and so that they could aid in colonization. It's something they've always done. But this time they're using Pete."

"What's an Envoy?"

"Here I'll show you..." Chip said, reaching into his jacket, but became occupied suddenly by the hundreds of eyes, glaring, lifeless and dull. The clinking of silverware had stopped. There was no more chatter, only the whirring of the fans overhead, the lulled sound of the flatiron grill from inside the kitchen. The throng was intensely interested, instead, on Chip and Flenn's table.

Chip gulped and tugged at the collar around his neck. It had just become uncomfortably stuffy.

No one moved.

Smoke rose from the cigarette poised between Flenn's lips, and was swept away, lost in the air of the Diner. There was a glazed expression across his face as he witnessed the scene.

Chip certainly hoped his friend was thinking the same thing he was. They needed a way out. They needed to scram. The clock on the wall behind Whitney blinked five of eleven. They might even be able to catch a passenger frigate off planet before rush hour if they hurried--

Then it hit him. If it only took one night for those around them to become infected, what were the odds it had already reached to the Capitol? If that was the case there would be no flights.

The dread washed over him.

What could they do in the face of an invasion--?

Chip signaled toward the restrooms, looking at Flenn, who caught the hint.

"How?" Flenn whispered.

Chip was trepidatious. "The window," he said through his teeth.

He looked over his shoulder, saw Whitney shift behind the counter, and before she could come around he got up from the table and walked as nonchalantly as he could toward the back of the Diner, Flenn following suit.

They heard chairs being pushed out behind them and took off running, throwing the door to the latrine open, slamming it shut behind them, their backs against it, Flenn's tentacles bracing the top and bottom of the door. And just in time because there quickly came a force on the other side.

"What the hell are we going to do?" Chip exclaimed.

"Did you see their faces?" Flenn asked, shaking his head.

Chip took in his surroundings; saw the window, which was locked. But they could always break the glass.

Flenn was breathing hard, over the sound of the raised voices on the other side of the door. He wheezed.

"Hey, take it easy, yeah?" Chip said. "We're going to be all right. Listen. Where're Maruda and the kids?"

"Don't." Flenn's black eyes flickered. "Don't put thoughts like that into my head. They're fine, okay? As I was leaving, Maruda told me she was planning on taking the kids to the beach--

"Oh god..." Flenn gasped.

"What?!"

"The water, Chip. If there are Zenths out there, that's where they're going to be, near the largest water source."

"Where'd you park?" Chip asked.

Flenn was frantic. "What? Why?"

The force against the door relinquished and Chip and Flenn looked at one another. They listened closely.

The front door dinged.

Instantaneously applause erupted. Cheers, whistling and praise.

"Let's go," Chip said. We can break the window. C'mon."

Then the thrall in the Diner ceased and Flenn shook his head. There was a knock on the restroom door, which sent a chill up their spines.

"Guys," said a voice that sounded like Pete's. "It's me. What's going on? What are you doing in the bathroom? I thought we were going to talk. Right?"

Chip scrambled for an idea, a plan, anything.

"C'mon. We know you're in there. Seems you have some things to get off your chest. I'm all ears."

For no apparent reason Pete began to laugh, and loudly too. The rest of the Diner joined in, and after the roar lulled he said, "It's true. But really. I think you should come out. We're not that bad. Whatever it is you may think of us is false."

Flenn looked at Chip with defeat.

Chip shook his head and mouthed, No. Not now. He nodded toward the window. We can still get out...

"Gentleman," Pete said with emphasis. "Please come out. There's no need for this."

"What can we do, man?" Flenn whispered. "They've got us."

"No, they don't. Why are you saying this?" Chip asked.

Flenn shrugged. "We can't get away. Not now."

"You know. You're absolutely right," Pete said, while turning the doorknob, pushing. "That's not an option."

Chip put all his strength against the door, his legs growing weak, but it wasn't enough to hold it when Flenn decided to let go and step back.

The door swung in and Chip stumbled forward, running into a stall.

"You know, it didn't have to be this way," Pete said, walking in. "We all just want to get along."

The laughter erupted once again.

Over his shoulder Chip saw the Canthemime, the large shades over his eyes, dressed in another colorfully assorted button-down, carrying his briefcase.

The briefcase.

Chip saw the action before it played out. He knew the steps to take to escape, the end in sight.

Pete smiled his yellow-fanged smile and was starting to say something, when Chip leaned back and kicked as hard as he could at Pete's briefcase, which fell from his hand, spilling the contents onto the floor. The Zenth collided against the door frame with an oomph. The laughter immediately ceased.

Chip saw the Tracer and bent down to lift it out from the briefcase, making sure it was loaded, popping out the magazine.

"What are you doing?" Flenn pleaded.

Chip cocked it and pointed the gun at--

Pete had gone. Disappeared.

The crowd began to close in, and instead of opting to stay inside the bathroom, they were going to go for the front door. And they were going to make it.

"Flenn, c'mon, we have to go," Chip insisted. "The hangars are only a few blocks away. We're going to get Maruda and the kids and then we're going to get the hell off-planet."

He fired a round into the ceiling and everyone ducked. There were a few shrieks, some silverware and plates clattered and broke.

Flenn recoiled.

"Listen closely. Whatever-the-hell you are, we're going to walk out of here right now. Undisturbed. Unchecked. And if any one of you tries to get at us, or do whatever it is you do, I will kill you." Chip said with poise.

Gasps rippled through the Zenths.

He fired another round. "Now get out of our way."

Chip looked for Pete amongst the sea of faces, as they moved ever closer to the door, but he didn't see the top of his fedora, nor his shades. He was somewhere. Hidden. Right where he wanted to be, but it didn't matter. In a few seconds he and Flenn would be outside. Free from the claustrophobia. Free from the panic.

From somewhere in the crowd Pete said quietly, "You know Chip. I think you should know something..."

Chip spun around, training the Tracer in the direction of the voice.

"Where are you?" Chip asked the mass, his hand shaking, sweat dripping into his eyes.

"What are you doing, man?!" Flenn asked incredulously. "We've got to go. I have to find my kids! C'mon!"

"Where are you?!" Chip cried.

"It's about time you knew something..." Pete said again, just as quiet.

"Chip! What the..." Flenn started to say, stopping. He watched as Chip paced back through the Diner. He couldn't believe his eyes. "What are you doing?"

Flenn was torn. But he was also wasting time. He looked toward the door, then back to see that Chip was nowhere to be found. He had no choice.

With his tentacles held out before him like a shield he made for the door, pushing past some customers.

Chip heard the bell ding and yelled, "Flenn, hang on! I'm coming. Just hang on!"

Chip went back for the door and saw that some of the Zenths had blocked the way. He shook his head and pointed the Tracer at one of them, an old man he didn't recognize. But in the end it didn't matter because the old man, as Chip saw him, was only flesh and bone. Just like the rest, his mind in the hands of an alien.

"Move it! And don't try anything. I mean it!" Chip ordered, the desperation in his voice.

They didn't move a muscle just stared blankly back.

"You see," Pete said, his words oddly echoing, Chip swatting at the syllables as if they were bats. "All this time. You've been watching us? Well, we've been watching you. We have our own devices you see, and we need you. That's the point of all this. We see something in you. A calling. Trust us. It's what you've been waiting for your whole life. You were meant for this."

"No... " Chip said pleadingly. Wanting very badly to find Pete and shoot him. He gripped the trigger, ready to fire just for the hell of it.

"Move!" he yelled. "Get out of the way!"

"Stop this Chip," Pete said, standing directly beside him, in his blind spot. "You're only making things worse."

Chip jumped, the Tracer falling from his hand, clattering across the floor. He fell to his knees, trying to catch it before it slid out of reach, but he missed. His breathing was erratic. He had to think, and fast. When it came to him he couldn't believe he didn't think of it before.

"Get back. Now!" Chip said getting his feet, reaching into his pocket. "Get the hell away from me, or I'll com the authorities."

Chip held out the simserver to show everyone, and at that they roared with laughter. The entire Diner was full of gut-busting chortles for what felt like a lifetime.

"There's no way..." Chip said, looking at Pete and the rest of them in horror. "No..."

"Chip," Pete said endearingly. "You say that like you didn't know this was coming. I want you to do something for me. I need you to relax. Can you do that for me?"

Chip realized then, as he felt the first prickles of the numbing crawl up his leg, that it was Pete that was talking in his head. Telepathically; which explained why Flenn couldn't understand what was happening.

Suddenly he couldn't feel his chest. His heart still pumped, but it was slower, in a detached sort of way. He lost all motor functions, but still he stood. His eyes were blurred by tears. Not from distress, but irritation, like there was a film across their surface. The bar, the tables, the faces, they were all fuzzy.

He glimpsed a thin silhouette walking over toward him. He thought it was Whitney at first, but realized that at this point, it didn't really matter who it was. They were all Zenth.

It was Pete, the Canthemime's shades practically touching Chip's nose. His breath was hot, moist.

With a smile in his voice Pete said, "I'm going to give you something. It's a gift. Our gift. So that you may help us do what we've come here to do. Trust us. It's the only way..."

And the last human thing that flashed in Chip's head wasn't the image of Flenn racing down the sand, yelling for his wife and kids; nor was it the thought that he had never raised a family, and grown old with the woman that he loved; and wasn't even the fact that he would never again vote; rather it was his famed painting of, 'The Chancellor,' which he'd never see again through his own eyes, hanging in the bathroom above the excretor.

The End


© 2012 J. J. Barella

Bio: J. J. Barella describes himself as "a native of the North Country" (not 'North' to a Canadian, I bet) who studied English Writing at SUNY Plattsburgh.

E-mail: J. J. Barella

Website: Joshua Barella Literature

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