Read by Matt Fleming
The messages always come at the most awkward moments. I’m in my hot tub trying to melt away the stress that goes along with what I do. Or I’m cooking dinner, the kind that involves more than a microwave, ten minutes, and a couple of beers while the food nukes. Or I’m in the sack with someone whose name I hope I’ll remember in the morning. My tablet buzzes, that double zzt-zzt that tells me it’s one of Them. My employers. Sending instructions. I’ve made a name for myself not just by excelling at what I do but by providing good customer service. I get them what they want, no questions asked. I keep my mouth shut and I cover my tracks. There are stranger ways to make a living, but not too many. Times have changed.
I look around the bar, scanning faces. There are plenty of dark smudges under bloodshot eyes. In the last couple of years, everyone below the age of forty has acquired a look of vague unease. Ambient music throbs: the soundtrack to after-work urban fatigue. The light in here’s all wrong, the color of a goldenrod if you left the stalk in a vase of pee. I think it’s meant for warmth, along with the wood-panelled walls and the overstuffed sofas, but in this light everyone looks like a candidate for mummification.
“What’ll it be?” asks the bartender, an English girl with a hipster chignon, granny glasses with smoked lenses, and bright red lipstick. I’ve been here a few times; I’ve talked to her. “Just drinks, or do you want the menu?”
I order a pint and watch the bartender pour drinks and chat customers up. Really, she’s better cut out for my job than I am. Is she pouring drinks to pay for her Master’s? Female, this evening’s instructions said. Tonight. Tomorrow at latest. Social sciences or the humanities. Not overweight. I try to imagine what she could be studying. She’s English, she’s in Hong Kong, and she’s in grad school. Asian Studies at HKU? Chinese? The problem with asking is that I’d find out the answer.
When the flying saucers landed a few hundred years ago, no one saw them, or if they did, they didn’t know what they were looking at; the aliens in our midst look just like us. Even down to the DNA level, there’s no difference, I’m told. They’re just… us, only more so. Smarter. Richer. More evil. By some estimates, they make up one percent of the population now. There would be more, but they breed selectively. They control the economy -- in fact, they’re the ones who’ve been trashing it for the last couple of decades. It works out much better for them that way. They get rich, and then all the jobs go away. What happens next? The young go back to school.
“Another pint?” asks the bartender.
The news is on. It’s the biggest story, one of those rare ones -- like the NSA spying scandal and that Assange guy getting old in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London -- that won’t quite disappear from the public mind. Just when you think that the story has ended, you find that it hasn’t. I recognize photos of two recent disappearances in Los Angeles.
“Can you believe that?” The English bartender expertly fills a new pint glass and slides it across the damp bar. “Two years now, all those disappearances, and no lead?”
“I know, right? Who’s in Interpol now -- second graders?”
My phone vibrates. Another text. I have to angle the phone and take half a step to the left to read without glare. By midnight tonight. Urgent.
All right. That’s a new one.
I read the captions on the TV screen mounted above the racks of liquor behind the bar. The two who disappeared in Los Angeles were found decapitated in some run-down corner of northern Mexico, hacked to pieces by drug gangs. Or so goes the official story. And so tragic -- one was doing an MFA at Cal Arts, and the other, a Master’s of Social Work at UC Irvine.
According to the Mexican authorities, their brains had been completely removed, say the captions. Awful white words under the CNN bouffant’s mouth. She’s wearing a dowdy blue blouse and pancake makeup. I can’t hear her over the background noise in the bar, but I can see revulsion contorting her face; when I read her lips, it’s as if the words taste bad.
Just like that, about half of my beer is gone. They told me they needed young, educated humans to stamp out near-extinction on their home world. Using them for breeding stock, not to put too fine a point on it. People in their twenties and thirties are old enough to have the skills and knowledge my employers need, and young enough to survive the trip with their reproductive bits intact. Now I’m not so sure.
You never want to think that you’ve been in denial until you can no longer deny it.
I don’t want to know what will happen if I fail to come through. I like my own head very much. I feel quite attached to it.
Elbows on the bar, I lean forward and tilt my now-empty beer glass at the bartender.
“So,” I ask her. “Are you still in school?”
The bartender stops to look at me. Then slides her dark-lensed glasses down her nose to reveal a pair of shocking silver eyes.
“And I know what you’re here for,” she says. “My bar is a safe zone. No hunting. Fuck off.”
I have another drink to brace myself up.
Time to go to work.