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Paul J. McAuley & Kim Newman

Born in Oxford, England, in 1955, Paul J. McAuley now makes his home in London. He is considered to be one of the best of the new breed of British writers (although a few Australian writers could be fit in under this heading as well) who are producing that sort of revamped, updated, widescreen Space Opera sometimes referred to as "radical hand science fiction," and is a frequent contributor to Interzone, as well as to markets such as Amazing, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Asimov's Science Fiction, When the Music's Over, and elsewhere. His first novel, Four Hundred Billion Stars, won the Philip K. Dick Award. His other books include the novels Of The Fall, Eternal Light, and Pasquale's Angel, two collections of his short work, The King of the Hill and Other Stories and The Invisible Country, and an original anthology coedited with Kim Newman, In Dreams. His acclaimed novel, Fairyland, won both the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the John W. Campbell Award in 1996. His most recent books are Child of the River and Ancient of Days, the first two volumes of a major new trilogy of ambitious scope and scale, Confluence, set ten million years in the future.

Kim Newman made his original reputation as a film critic, is a commentator on films on British television, and has published several books of film criticism, including Nightmare Movies and Wild West Movies. Of late, though, his career as a fiction writer has also shifted into high gear—and he has published a number of novels in the '90s, many of them gaming novels published under his pseudonym of "Jack Yeovil." Novels published under his own name include The Night Mayor, Bad Dreams, Jago, and Anno Dracula. He has also published a critical study, Horror: 100 Best Books, written in collaboration with Stephen Jones, and an original anthology, coedited with Paul J. McAuley, called In Dreams. He won the British Science Fiction Award for his story "The Original Dr. Shade," and has been a frequent contributor to Interzone, and to various British anthology series. His most recent books include the critically acclaimed The Bloody Red Baron. He lives in London, England.

In the wry but suspenseful story that follows, they join forces to spin a thrilling tale of secret alien invasion, warn us to keep watching the skies, and examine some of the unexpected consequences of world-shaking events, some of which may not even arise until years down the road . . .

On his way out, the motel guy switches on the TV and the AC without bothering to ask if I want either. The unit over the door rattles and starts to drip on the purple shag carpet. On a dusty screen, a cowboy hunkers down over the Sci-Fi Channel station ident, squinting from under a Stetson. It ought to be like looking at myself because the cowboy is supposed to be me. But it's not.

The Omega Encounter is always playing somewhere on a rerun channel, I guess, but here and now it's like an omen.

I'm still living off the Omega residuals because it's my version of what went down, officially adapted from the "as told to" book Jay Anson did for me. Nyquist sold Starlight, the book Tom Fuckin' Wolfe wrote with him, for twenty times as much to Universal.

There's a little skip where there used to be a shot of a fly-blown, bloodied rubber cow carcass. It could be a censor cut or a snip to reduce the running time. When E.W. Swackhamer directed Omega, there were thirteen minutes of commercials in an hour of TV; now there are eighteen, so five minutes of each hour have to be lost from everything made before the nineties.

I don't unpack, except for the bottles of Cuervo Gold Tequila I bought at the airport, and sit up on the bed, watching two days of my life processed and packaged as a sixteen-year-old movie-of-the-week.

It's gotten to the part where I find the first of the mutilated cattle. I'm showing one to Mr. Nyquist, played by Dennis Weaver the way he plays McCloud, shrewd and up-right. To tell the truth, Nyquist was always half bombed even before it all started, and had a mean streak in him that was nothing to do with drink. The bastard would hit Susan when he was loaded, going off like a firecracker over the slightest thing and stomping out, banging the screen door hard, leaving her holding her cheek and me looking down at my dinner. He was crazy even then, I guess, but still able to hold it down.

The movie makes me a lot more talkative than I ever was around Nyquist. Susan is Cybill Shepherd in her post-Last Picture Show, pre-Moonlighting career slump. I am Jan-Michael Vincent in his post-birth, pre-death career trough.

I watch until I follow the slime trails in the grass and see the lights of the mothership off in the distance hovering above the slough, and then I flip channels because I can't stand to watch anymore.

They didn't have the budget to do the aliens properly on TV and only used long shots, but I still don't want to watch. I can take the expensive computer-controlled models in the movie because they're too real in the way Main Street in Disneyland is too real. So perfect a reproduction it doesn't fool anyone for a second. But show me a couple of out-of-focus midgets jumping around inside silvered plastic bags in slow motion with the setting sun behind them, and my imagination fills in the blanks. The sour reek. And the noise the things made as they hopped around, like they were filled with Jell-O and broken bones.

QVC is less of a blow to the heart. I drink tequila out of the bathroom glass and consider calling a toll-free number to order a zircon chandelier. Then I drink some more and decide against it.

Despite Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford (as Nyquist), and five million preinflation bucks of ILM, Starlight: The Motion Picture was a box-office disappointment. By the time the effects were developed, Omega had spun off a mid-season replacement series with Sam Groom (as me) and Gretchen Corbett that got canceled after three episodes. The aliens were old news, and everybody knew how the story came out. In Starlight, I'm rewritten as a codger farmhand who sacrifices himself for Boss Man Ford, stealing the film with a dignified death scene. Richard Farnsworth got an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, but lost out to the gook in The Killing Fields.

I give up TV and call my agent, using the room phone because my mobile doesn't want to work out here in the desert, all that radar, or the microwave signals they send to the secret Moon colony (ha ha), and I tell him where I am. He says to watch my ass, and that when I get back he thinks he might have another hardware store commercial lined up ("fix your Starship, lady?"). It's just for New York cable, but it'll pay the rent a while. He doesn't think I can pull off this reunion, is what it is, and I tell him that, and then I hang up and I watch an old Saturday Night Live for a while.

I was on one show for about five minutes, in a Cone-head episode with Dan Ackroyd and Jane Curtin. Can't hardly remember that night—I was drunk at the time—but now I guess those five minutes are always showing somewhere, just like everything else that ever went through a transmitter. If aliens out there have been monitoring our broadcasts like they did in old movies to explain why they speak perfect English, just about the first question we'd ask them was if they taped those lost episodes of The Honeymooners. I watch Chevy Chase do Jerry Ford falling over just about everything in the studio set, and drink some more tequila, and fall asleep a while.

It's been a long day, the flight out from New York delayed two hours, then a long drive through Los Angeles, where I've never driven because I was chauffeured around when all the deals were in the air, and which is ten times more packed with traffic than I remember, and out into the high desert along Pearblossom Highway with all the big trucks driving in bright sunlight and blowing dust with their headlights on.

The phone wakes me up. I use the remote to turn down Dave Letterman, and pick up. A voice I haven't heard for twenty years says, "Hello, Ray."

At first, only the Enquirer and the Weekly World News were interested. But when the reports came back and the FBI slapped a security classification on them, and Elliot Mitchell started making a fuss because he was transferred to the Texas panhandle and his field notes and his twenty rolls of film and six hours of cassette recordings were "lost," Newsweek and Rolling Stone showed up. Tom Wicker's piece in Rolling Stone said it was all part of a government plot stretching back to Roswell, and that the U.S. Army was covering up tests with hallucinogenic weapons.

Then the artifacts went on view, and ten types of expert testified they were "non-terrestrial." It wasn't a government conspiracy any more, it was a goddamn alien invasion, just like Nyquist and me had been saying. Mitchell had rewritten his field notes from memory, and sent photocopies to Science and Nature. He even got his name as discoverer on the new hyperstable transuranic element, which along with the bodies was one of the few tangible residues of the whole thing. I wonder how he felt when Mitchellite was used in the Gulf War to add penetrative power to artillery shells?

Then the Washington Post got behind the story, and all the foreign press, and the shit hit the fan. For a while, it was all anybody talked about. We got to meet President Carter, who made a statement supporting our side of things, and declared he would see that no information was withheld from the public.

I was on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, back when that meant something. I did Dick Cavett, CBS News with Walter Cronkite, 60 Minutes with Mike Wallace, NBC Weekend News with Jessica Savitch. Me and Nyquist were scurrying to get our book deals sorted out, then our screen rights. People were crawling all over, desperate to steal our lives, and we went right along with the feeding frenzy.

We wrapped each other up with restraints and gag orders, and shot off our mouths all the time. Mitchell was out of the loop: instead of deals with Hollywood producers and long lunches with New York publishers, he got tied up in a civil liberties suit because he tried to resign from the U.S. geological survey and the government wouldn't let him.

Then the Ayatollah took the hostages, and everyone had something else to worry about. Carter became a hostage in his own White House and most of the artifacts disappeared in the C-130 air crash the conspiracy theorists said was staged. Reagan never said anything on record, but the official line changed invisibly when he became President. The reports on the reports questioned the old findings, and deposits of Mitchellite showed up on Guam and somewhere in Alaska.

I did Geraldo with Whitley Strieber and Carl Sagan, and came off like a hick caught between a rock and a hard place. I had started drinking by then, and tried to punch out one or the other of them after the show, and spent the night in a downtown holding tank. I faced a jury of skeptics on Oprah and was cut to pieces, not by reasoned scientific arguments and rationalizations but by cheap-shot jokes from a studio audience of stand-up wannabes.

I told my side of it so many times that I caught myself using exactly the same words each time, and I noticed that on prerecorded shows, the presenter's nods and winks—always shot from a reverse angle after the main interview—were always cut in at exactly the same points. An encouraging dip of the head laced with a concerned look in the eyes, made in reaction to a cameraman's thumb, not an already-forgotten line from me.

Besides The Omega Encounter and Starlight, there were dozens of books, movies, TV specials, magazine articles, a Broadway play, even a music album. Creedence Clearwater Revival's "It Came Out of the Sky" was reissued and charted strongly. Some English band did a concept album. John Sladek and Tom Disch collaborated on a novel-length debunking, The Sentients: A Tragi-Comedy. That's in development as a movie, maybe with Fred Ward.

Sam Shepard's Alienation, which Ed Harris did on Broadway and Shepard starred in and directed for HBO, looked at it all from the dirt farmer's point of view, suggesting that Nyquist and me were looking for fresh ways of being heroes since we'd lost touch with the land. The main character was a combination of the two of us, and talked in paragraphs, and the scientist—Dean Stockwell on TV was a black-hatted villain, which displeased Mitchell no end. He sued and lost, I recall.

By then I was looking at things through the blurry dimple at the bottom of the bottle, living off the residuals from commercials and guest appearances in rock videos and schlock direct-to-video horror movies shot by postmodernist auteurs just out of UCLA film school, though I recall that Sam Raimi's The Color Out of Time was kind of not bad.

Then I read in Variety that Oliver Stone has a treatment in development raking the whole thing up, blaming it all on J. Edgar Hoover, Armand Hammer and Henry Kissinger. There was an article in the New York Times that Norman Mailer had delivered his thousand-page summation of the phenomenon, The Visitation. And that's where I got the idea to get in touch with Mitchell and make some cash on the back of Stone and Mailer's publicity, and maybe Mitchell had been reading the same articles, because before I can begin to think how to try and track him down, he calls me.

I drive past the place I'm to meet Mitchell and have to double back, squinting in the glare of the big rigs that roar out of the darkness, all strung up with fairylights like the spaceship in Closer Encounters. I do what sounds like serious damage to the underside of the rental when I finally pull off.

The ruins are close to the highway, but there's a spooky feeling that makes me leave the car's headlights on. Out across the dark desert basin, where the runways of Edwards Air Force Base are outlined in patterns of red and green lights a dozen miles long, some big engine makes a long drawn-out rumble that rises to a howl before cutting off.

I sit in the car and take a few pulls on my bottle to get some courage, or at least burn away the fluttering in my gut, looking at the arthritic shapes that Joshua trees make in the car headlights. Then I make myself get out and look around. There's not much to the ruins, just a chimney stack and a line of pillars where maybe a porch stood. People camping out have left circles of ash in the sand and dented cans scattered around; when I stumble over a can and it rattles off a stone, I realize how quiet the desert is, beyond the noise of the trucks on the highway. I get a feeling like the one I had when the three of us were waiting that last night, before we blew up the mothership, and have to take another inch off the level of the tequila to calm down.

That's when my rental car headlights go out and I almost lose it, because that's what happened when they tried to kidnap me, the lights and then the dashboard on my pickup going out and then a bright light all around, coming from above. That time, I had a pump-action shotgun on the rack in the cab, which is what saved me. Now, I have a tequila bottle with a couple of inches sloshing in it, and a rock I pick up.

A voice behind me says my name, and I spin and lose my balance and fall on my ass, the tequila bottle emptying over my pants leg. A flashlight beam pins me, and behind it, Elliot Mitchell says, "This was the last socialist republic in the USA, did you know that? They called the place Llano del Rio. This was their meeting hall. They built houses, a school, planted orchards. But the government gave their water rights to the local farmers and they had to move out. All that's left are the orchards, and those will go because they're subdividing the desert for housing tracts to take LA's overspill."

I squint into the light, but can't see anything of the man holding it.

"Never put your faith in government, Ray. Its first instinct is not to protect the people it's supposed to serve but to protect its own self. People elect politicians, not governments. Don't get up. I'm happier to see you sitting down. Do you think you were followed here?"

"Why would I be followed? No one cares about it anymore. That's why I'm here."

"You want to make another movie, Ray? Who is it with? Oliver Stone? He came out to see me. Or sent one of his researchers anyway. You know his father was in the Navy, don't you, and he's funded by the UN counterpropaganda unit, the same one that tried to assassinate Reagan. The question is, who's paying you?"

"Crazy Sam's Hardware back in Brooklyn, if I do the ad."

I have a bad feeling. Mitchell appears to have joined the right-wing nuts who believe that little black helicopters follow them everywhere, and that there are secret codes on the back of traffic signs to direct the UN invasion force when it comes.

I say, "I don't have any interest except the same one that made you want to call me. We saved the world, Elliot, and they're ripping off our story . . ."

"You let them. You and Nyquist. How is old Nyquist?"

"Sitting in a room with mattresses on the walls, wearing a backward jacket and eating cold creamed corn. They made him the hero, when it was us who blew up the mothership, it was us who captured that stinking silver beach-ball, it was us who worked out how to poison most of them."

I put the bottle to my lips, but there's hardly a swallow left. I toss it away. This isn't going the way I planned, but I'm caught up in my anger. It's come right back, dull and heavy. "We're the ones that saved Susan, not her lousy husband!"

"We didn't save her, Ray. That was in your TV movie. The Omega Encounter. We got her back, but the things they'd put inside her killed her anyway."

"Well, we got her back, and if fuckin' Doc Jensen had listened, we would have saved her, too!"

I sit there, looking into the flashlight beam with drunken tears running down my face.

"How much do you remember, Ray? Not the movies, but the real thing? Do you remember how we got Susan out of the mothership?"

"I stay away from shopping malls, because they give me flashbacks. Maybe I'm as crazy as Nyquist. Sometimes, I dream I'm in one of those old-fashioned hedge mazes, like in The Shining. Sometimes, I'm trying to get out of the hospital they put us in afterward. But it's always the same, you know."

Mitchell switches off the flashlight. I squint into the darkness, but all I see is swimming afterimages.

"Come tomorrow," Mitchell says, and something thumps beside me.

It is a rock, with a piece of torn paper tied to it. Under the dome light of the rental car, I smooth out the paper and try to make sense of the map Mitchell has drawn.

Two days. That's how long it took. Now, my life is split into Before and After. What no one gets is that the thing itself—the event, the encounter, the invasion, the incursion, the whatever—was over inside two days. I've had head colds and belly-aches that lasted a whole lot longer. That's what marks me out. When I die, my obits will consist of three paragraphs about those two days and two sentences about everything else. Like I said about Jan-Michael, I have a post-birth, pre-death rut for a life. Except for those two days.

After about a decade, it got real old. It was as if everyone was quizzing me about some backyard baseball game I pitched in when I was a kid, blotting out all of the rest of my life—parents, job, marriages, kid, love, despair—with a couple of hours on the mound. I even tried clamming up, refusing to go through it all again for the anniversary features. I turned my back on those two days and tried to fix on something else worth talking about. I'd come close to making it with Adrienne Barbeau, didn't I? Or was it Heather Locklear? Maybe it was just in one of the scripts and some actor played me. I was doing harder stuff than alcohol just then.

That phase lasted maybe three months. I was worn down in the end. I realized that I needed to tell it again. For me, as much as for everyone else. I was like those talking books in that Bradbury novel—yeah, I admit it, I read science fiction when I was a kid, and doesn't that blow my whole story to bits, proving that I made it all up out of half-remembered bits of pulp magazine stories—my whole life was validated by my story, and telling it was as necessary to me as breathing. Over the years, it got polished and shiny. More than a few folks told me it sounded like Bradbury.

"A million years ago, Nyquist's farm was the bottom of the ocean," I would always begin, paraphrasing the opening of my book. "Susan Nyquist collected sea-shells in the desert. Just before I looked up and saw the spinning shape in the sky, I was sifting through the soft white sand, dredging up a clam-shaped rock that might once have been alive . . ."

No, I'm not going to tell it all again here. That's not what this is about at all.

Do you know what a palimpsest is? It's old parchment that has been written on once, had the writing rubbed out, and been written on again. Sometimes several times. Only, with modern techniques, scientists can read the original writing, looking underneath the layers.

That's my story. Each time I've told it, I've whited out the version underneath. It's built up, like lime on a dripping faucet. In telling it so many times, I've buried the actual thing.

Maybe that's why I've done it.

Regardless of the movies, it wasn't a B picture, with simple characters and actions. Okay, there were aliens (everyone else calls them that except Strieber, so I guess I can too), a woman was taken, and we poisoned most of them and dug out dynamite and blew up their spaceship (I've never liked calling it that—it was more like one of Susan's shells blown up like a balloon, only with light instead of helium or air). We saved the world, right?

Or maybe we just killed a bunch of unknowable Gandhis from the Beyond. That's what some woman accused me of at a book-signing. She thought they'd come to save us, and that we'd doomed the world by scaring them off.

That gave me a shock. I tried to see the story the way she might.

It didn't play in Peoria. The woman—pink bib overalls, bird's-nest hair, Velma-from-Scooby-Doo glasses, a "Frodo Lives!" badge—hadn't seen the visitors, the aliens.

She hadn't seen what they'd done to Susan.

But I was up close.

The little fuckers were evil. No, make that Evil. I don't know if they were from outer space, the third circle of Hell, or the Land of Nod, but they weren't here to help anyone but themselves.

What they did to the cattle, what they did to Susan, wasn't science, wasn't curiosity. They liked taking things apart, the way Mikey Bignell in third grade liked setting fire to cats, and Mikey grew up to get shot dead while pistol-whipping a fifty-two-year-old married lady during a filling station hold-up. If the visitors ever grow up beyond the cat-burning phase, I figure they could do some serious damage.

I am not just trying to justify what we did to them.

Now, without trying to tell the story yet again, I'm tapping into what I really felt at the time: half-scared, half-enraged. No Spielberg sense of wonder. No TV movie courage. No Ray Bradbury wistfulness.

"Inside the Ship was all corridors and no rooms, crisscrossing tunnels through what seemed like a rocky rubber solid stuff. Mitchell went ahead, and I followed. We blundered any which way, down passages that made us bend double and kink our knees, and trusted to luck that we'd find where they'd taken Susan. I don't know whether or not we were lucky to find her or whether they intended it. I don't know if we were brave and lucky, or dumb rats in a maze.

"Mitchell claims the thing told us where to go, flashed a floor-plan into our minds, like the escape lights in an airliner. I guess that's his scientific mind talking. For me, it was different. I had a sense of being myself and being above myself, looking down. We didn't take a direct route to Susan, hut spiraled around her, describing a mandala with an uneven number of planes of symmetry. It was like the New Math: finding the answer wasn't as important as knowing how to get there, and I think Mitchell and I, in our different ways, both flunked."

I didn't say so in the book, but I think that's why what happened to Susan afterward went down. When we dragged Susan, alive but unconscious, out of the hot red-black half-dark at the heart of the ship we were too exhausted to feel any sense of triumph. We went in, we found her, we got her out. But we didn't get the trick quite right.

Here's how I usually end it:

"Nyquist was shaking too bad to aim the rifle. I don't amount to much, but while I can't shoot good enough to lake the eye out of the eagle if you toss a silver dollar in the air, nine times out of ten I'll at least clip the coin. Mitchell was shouting as he ran toward us with two of the things hopping after him. The reel of wire was spinning in his hands as he ran. Nyquist snapped out of it and tossed me the gun"—in his version, he gets both of the critters with two shots, bing-bang—"and I drew a bead, worried that Mitchell would zigzag into the line of fire, then put a bullet into the first alien. Pink stuff burst out of the back of it in midleap, and it tumbled over, deflating like a pricked party balloon.

"Even from where I was, I could smell the stink, and Nyquist started to throw up. The second critter was almost on Mitchell when I fired again, the hot casing stinging my cheek as I worked the bolt, and fired, and fired, and kept shooting as Mitchell threw himself down in a tangle of wire while the thing went scooting off back toward the ship. My hands shaking so bad I sliced my hand bad when I trimmed the wires back to bare copper. Mitchell snatched them from me and touched them to the terminals of the truck's battery.

"We didn't have more than a dozen sticks of low-grade dynamite for getting out tree stumps, and Mitchell hadn't had time to place them carefully when those things came scooting out like hornets out of a bottle. And Mitchell hadn't even wanted to do it, saying that the ship must be fireproofed, like the Apollo module, or it wouldn't have survived atmospheric entry. But it was our last best hope, and when the sticks blew, the ship went up like a huge magnesium flare. I put my hands over my eyes, and saw the bones of my hands against the light. The burst was etched into my eyeballs for months. It hardly left any debris, just evaporated into burning light, blasting the rock beneath to black crystal. You can still see the glassy splash where it stood if you can get the security clearance. There was a scream like a dying beast, but it was all over quickly. When we stopped blinking and the echo was dead, there was almost nothing where the ship had been. They were gone."

Is that an ending? If it is, what has the rest of my life been? An epilogue, like on some Quinn Martin series episode, with William Conrad reporting that I am still at large, still running off my mouth, still living it down?

Or has it just been an interlude before the sequel?

I wake up the next morning with the shakes. There's not even fumes in the tequila bottle I clutched to my chest all night, and nothing but warm cans of Dr Pepper in the motel vending machine, so I drive the mile into town and buy a twelve pack of Bud, giving thanks to California's liberal liquor-license laws. I'm coming out of the 7 Eleven when two men in sunglasses fall in step with me on either side, and I don't need to see their badges to know what they are.

They make me leave my beer in the car and take me across the dusty highway to the town's diner, an Airstream trailer with a tattered awning shading one side. The older guy orders coffee and pancakes, and grins across the table while his partner crowds me on the bench. I can't help looking through the greasy window at my car, where the beer is heating up on the front seat, and the older guy's grin gets wider. He gets out a hip flask and pours a shot into my coffee, and I can't help myself and guzzle it down, scalding coffee running down my chin.

"Jesus," the young guy, Duane Bissette, says, disgusted.

He's ihe local field agent, blond hair slicked back from his rawboned face. He hasn't taken off his mirrorshades, and it shoulder harness makes a bulge under his tailored suit jacket.

"Judge not," the other guy says, and pours me another shot, twinkling affably. He has curly white hair and a comfortable gut, like Santa Claus's younger brother. He's hung his seersucker jacket on the back of his chair. There are half-moon sweat stains under his arms, and sweat beads under his hairline. "Ray's living out his past, and he's having a hard time with it. Am I right, or am I right?"

I ignore the rye whiskey in the coffee mug. I say, "If you want to talk to me, talk to my agent first. Murray Weiss, he's in the Manhattan Directory."

"But you're one of us," the older guy says, widening his eyes in mock innocence. "You got your badge, when? '77? 78?"

It was 1976 and I'm sure he damn well knows it, done right out on the White House lawn, with a silver band playing and the Stars and Stripes snapping in the breeze under a hot white sky. The Congressional Medal of Honor for me and Nyquist, and honorary membership in the FBI. I'd asked for that because if it was good enough for Elvis, it was good enough for me. It was the last time I saw Nyquist, and even then he was ignoring me with the same intensity with which I'm right now ignoring that rye.

I say, "Your young friend here was polite enough to show me his badge. I don't believe I know you."

"Oh, we met, very briefly. I was part of the team that helped clean up." He smiles and holds out his hand over the coffee mugs and plates of pancakes, then shrugs. "Guerdon Winter. I'll never forget that first sight of the crater, and the carcass you had."

"You were all wearing those spacesuits and helmets. 'Scuse me for not recognizing you."

The FBI agents looked more like space aliens than the things we killed. They cleared out everything, from the scanty remains of the mothership to my collection of tattered paperbacks. I still have the receipts. They took me and Nyquist and Mitchell and put us in isolation chambers somewhere in New Mexico and put us through thirty days of interrogation and medical tests. They took Susan's body and we never saw it again. I think of the C-130 crash, and I say, "You should have taken more care of what you appropriated, Agent Winter."

Guerdon Winter takes a bite of pancake.

"We could have had that alien carcass stuffed and mounted and put on display in the Smithsonian, and in five years it would have become one more exhibit worth maybe ten seconds' gawping. The public doesn't need any help in getting distracted, and everything gets old fast. You know better than me how quickly they forget. You're the one in showbiz. But we haven't forgotten, Ray."

"You want me to find out what Mitchell is doing."

"Mitchell phoned you from a pay phone right here in town ten days ago, and you wrote him at the box number he gave you, and then you came down here. You saw him last night."

Duane Bissette stirs and says, "He's been holed up for two years now. He's been carrying out illegal experiments."

"If you were following me you could have arrested him last night."

Guerdon Winter looks at Duane Bissette, then looks at me. He says, "We could arrest him each time he comes into town for supplies, but that wouldn't help us get into his place, and we know enough about his interrogation profile to know he wouldn't give it up to us. But he wants to talk to you, Ray. We just want to know what it is he's doing out there."

"He believes you have the map," Duane Bissette says.

I remember the scrap of paper Mitchell gave me last night and say, "You want the map?"

"It isn't important," Guerdon Winter says quickly. "What's important is that you're here, Ray."

I look out at my rental car again, still thinking about the beer getting warm. Just beyond it, a couple of Mexicans in wide-brimmed straw hats are offloading watermelons from a dusty Toyota pickup. One is wearing a very white T-shirt with the Green Lantern symbol. They could be agents, too; so could the old galoot at the motel.

I know Duane Bissette was in my motel room last night; I know he took Mitchell's map and photocopied it and put it back. The thing is, it doesn't seem like betrayal. It stirs something inside me, not like the old excitement of those two crystal-clear days when everything we did was a heroic gesture, nothing like so strong or vivid, but alive all the same. Like waking up to a perfect summer's day after a long uneasy sleep full of nightmares.

I push the coffee away from me and say, "What kind of Illegal experiments?"

If Mitchell hadn't been a government employee, if they hadn't ridiculed and debunked his theories, and spirited him off to the ass end of nowhere—no Congressional Medal ceremony for him, he got his by registered mail—if they hadn't stolen the discovery of Mitchellite from him, then maybe he wouldn't have ended up madder than a dancing chicken on a hot plate at the state fair. Maybe he wouldn't have taken it into his head to try what he did. Or maybe he would have done it anyway. Like me, he was living in After, with those two bright days receding like a train. Like me, he wanted them back. Unlike me, he thought he had a way to do it.

Those two agents don't tell me as much as I need to know, but I suspect that they don't know what it is Mitchell is doing. I have an idea that he's building something out in the desert that'll bring those old times back again.

Driving out to Mitchell's place takes a couple of hours. The route on the map he gave me is easy enough: south along Pearblossom's two-lane blacktop, then over the concrete channel of the aqueduct that carries water taken from Washington State—did you see Chinatown? yeah, there—and up an unmade track that zigzags along the contours of the Piñon Hills and into a wide draw that runs back a couple of miles. The light in the draw is odd. Cold and purple, like expensive sunglasses. Either side of the road is nothing but rocks, sand, dry scrub, and scattered Joshua trees.

I start to feel a grudging sympathy for Agent Bissette. No matter how he hangs back, it's impossible to tail a car out here without your mark knowing. I have the urge to wait for a dip that puts me momentarily out of his sight and swerve off into a patch of soft sand, sinking the rental like a boat in shallows, creating another unexplained mystery.

Mitchell's place is right at the top of the draw, near the beginning of the tree line. In the high desert, trees grow only on the tops of the mountains. The FBI parks under a clump of stunted pines and lets me go on alone. I'm lucky they didn't want me to wear a wire. They'll just wait, and see if I can cope with Crazy Elliot. For them, it'll be a boring afternoon, with maybe an exciting apprehension about nightfall.

Me. I'm going back to the Days of Sharp Focus.

The rye in the coffee has burned out and I've not touched the soup-warm beer on the passenger seat. I can feel the heat steaming the booze out of my brain. I'm going into this alone.

I get out of the rental, aware of Winter and Bissette watching me through the tinted windshield of their Lincoln Continental. Of Mitchell, there's not a trace. Not even footprints or tire marks in the sandy track. I crouch down, and run a handful of warm sand through my fingers, making like an Indian tracker in some old Western while I ponder my next move.

There are tine-trails in the sand. The whole area has been raked, like a Japanese garden. I can imagine Mitchell working by night, raking a fan-shaped wake as he backs toward the paved area I see a dozen yards away.

I walk across the sand, and reach the flagstones. This was the floor of a house that's long gone. I can see the fieldstone hearth, and the ruts where wooden walls had been.

Beyond the stone is a gentle incline, sloping down maybe twenty feet, then leveling off. Down there, protected from sight, Mitchell has been building. I look at his paper, and see what he means. The FBI think it's a circuit diagram, but it really is a map. Mitchell has made himself a maze, but there's nothing on his map that shows me how to get through it.

I know now where the old timbers of the house have gone. Mitchell has cannibalized everything carriable within a mile, and some things I would have sworn you'd need a bulldozer at least to shift, but he must have had a few truck-loads of chickenwire, wood, and just plain junk hauled out here. The archway entrance is a Stonehenge arrangement of two 1950s junkers buried hood-first like standing stones, with their tailfins and clusters of egg-shaped rear lights projecting into the air. A crosspiece made of three supermarket shopping carts completes the arch.

There are other old cars parked and piled in a curving outer wall, built on with wire and wood. And all over the place, sticking up through the sand, are sharp spars and spines that sparkle in the sun.

I know that glittery look, a glinting like the facets of an insect's eye or 1970s eye makeup under fluorescent disco lights. It's Mitchellite.

I walk up to the gateway and stop, careful not to touch the spars. They dot everything—stone, wood, metal—like some sort of mineral mold. Crusty little alien points that seem to be growing out of the ordinary Earth stuff. About ten years ago, a couple of crazy English physicists claimed you could use Mitchellite to get unlimited energy by cold fusion and end up with more Mitchellite than you started with, but they were debunked, defrocked, and for all I know defenestrated, and that was the end of it. But maybe they were right. It looks like the Mitchellite is transmuting ordinary stuff into itself.

There's an iron crowbar, untouched by Mitchellite, propped against a stone. I pick it up, heft it in my hands. It has a good weight. I always felt better with a simple tool, something you could trust.

Planks are set between the half-buried cars, a path into the interior of the maze. They are pocked with Mitchellite spars that splinter the rotten wood from the inside. I smash down with the poker and split a plank, scraping away bone-dry wood fragments from the Mitchellite nerve-tangles that have been growing inside, sucking strength from the material.

It looks fragile, but it doesn't crumple under my boots.

On the other side of the arch hangs a shower curtain that leaves a three-foot gap beneath it. I push it aside with the crowbar and step into the maze.

The structure is open to the sky, mostly. The walls are of every kind of junk, wood, lines of rocks or unmortared concrete blocks, even barbed wire, grown through or studded with Mitchellite. A few yuccas rise up from the maze's low walls, their fleshy leaves sparkling as if dusted with purplish snow. The floor is made of Mitchellite-eaten planks. There are stretches of clean, unmarked sand. But by each of them is propped a rake, for obscuring footprints. By the first rake is a pane of glass in the sand, and in the hollow under the glass is a handgun wrapped in a plastic baggie, and a handwritten note. In case of F(B)IRE smash glass. So that's what the crowbar is for. I leave the gun where it is and turn and stare at the maze again.

After a while I fish out the map and look at it. It takes me a while even to work out where I am, but with a creepy chill I realize I'm standing on the spot where Mitchell has drawn a stick figure. In the center of the map is a white space, where there's another, bigger stick figure. Dotted throughout are smaller figures, drawn in red. I know what they're supposed to be. Some are drawn over black lines that represent walls.

I call out Mitchell's name.

The maze funnels my own voice back to me, distorted and empty.

"Ray, come on, what are you waiting for?"

It was obviously a doorway. Mitchell bent down low—the round opening was the creatures' size—and squeezed into the ship.

I hesitated, but thought of Susan, and the things that had taken her.

"I'm coming, Mitchell."

I followed the geologist. Inside, was another world.

"I'm coming, Mitchell."

I know at once what he's done. This isn't really a maze. It's a model, twice as big again as the real thing, of the aliens' ship.

My knees are weak and I'm shaking. I'm back on the mandala path. I'm above myself and in myself, and I know where to go. I know the route, just as I know the ache that sets into my knees after a minute, an ache that grows to a crippling pain. Just as I remember finding Susan. And finding out later what they'd done to her.

Mitchell took the lead, that time. I followed, forgetting Nyquist chicken-heartedly frozen at the entrance, not daring to go further.

Remembering, I follow Mitchell's lead again. Around and inward, spiral across a DNA coil or a wiring diagram, a bee-dance through catacombs. The route is a part of me.

The deeper inside the maze I get, the more Mitchellite there is. The original wood and stone and wire and concrete has been almost completely eaten away. Purple light glitters everywhere, dazzling even through my sunglasses. Without them, I'd be snow-blind in a minute.

When the process is finished, when there's nothing more of Earth in the maze, will this thing be able to fly? Will Mitchell carry the war to the enemy?

"Ray," someone—not Mitchell—shouts, from behind me.

It's the FBI. I thought I was supposed to haul Mitchell out on my own. Now the pros are here, I wonder why I've bothered.

I feel like a sheep driven across a minefield. A Judas goat.

I got into the maze and I'm still alive, so Guerdon Winter and Bissette know it's safe.

I turn, shading my eyes against the tinted glare that shines up from everything around me. The agents are following my footprints. Bissette doesn't duck under the crossbar of an arch nailed up of silvery grey scraps of wood, and scrapes his forehead against a Mitchellite-spackled plank.

I know what will happen.

It's like sandpaper stuck with a million tiny fishhooks and razor blades. The gentlest touch opens deep gashes. Bissette swears, not realizing how badly he's hurt, and a curtain of blood bursts from the side of his head. A flap of scalp hangs down. Red rain spatters his shades.

Bissette falls to his knees. Guerdon Winter plucks out a handkerchief from the breast pocket of his sweat-stained seersucker jacket. A bedsheet won't staunch the flow.

"You can't go on," Guerdon Winter tells the junior agent, who can't protest for the pain. "We'll come back for you."

Naturally, Guerdon Winter has his gun out. When Mitchell and I went into the mothership, we didn't even think of guns. I left my shotgun in the pickup, and Nyquist held on to his rifle like it was a comforter blanket and wouldn't give it up to us. Some heroes, huh? Every single version of the story rectifies the omission, and we go in tooled up fit to face Bonnie and Clyde.

The FBI has made a bad mistake.

They've changed the story again. By adding the guns, and maybe themselves, they've made me lose my place.

I don't know which way to go from here.

My feet and my spine and my aching knees were remembering. But the memory's been wiped.

Bissette is groaning. His wound is tearing worse—there are tiny particles of alien matter in it, ripping his skin apart as they grow—and the whole right side of his head and his suit-shoulder are deep crimson.

"Ray," prompts Guerdon Winter. There's a note of pleading in his voice.

I look at the fork ahead of us, marked with a cow's skull nodding on a pole, and suddenly have no idea which path to take. I look up at the sky. There's a canopy of polythene up there, scummy with sand-drifts in the folds. I look at the aisles of junk. They mean nothing to me. I'm as blank as the middle of the map Mitchell gave me.

Then Winter does something incredibly stupid. He offers me a hip flask and smiles and says, "Loosen up, Ray. You'll do fine."

I knock the flask away, and it hits a concrete pillar laced with Mitchellite and sticks there, leaking amber booze from a dozen puncture points. The smell does something to my hindbrain and I start to run, filled with blind panic just the way I was when I followed behind Mitchell, convinced alien blimps would start nibbling at my feet.

I run and run, turning left, turning right, deeper and deeper into the maze. The body remembers, if it's allowed. Someone shouts behind me, and then there's a shot and a bullet spangs off an engine block and whoops away into the air; another turns the windshield of a wheelless truck to lace which holds its shape for a moment before falling away. I leap over a spar of Mitchellite like an antelope and run on, feeling the years fall away. I've dropped the map, but it doesn't matter. The body remembers. Going in, and coming out. Coming out with Susan. That's the name I yell, but ahead, through a kind of hedge of twisted wire coated with a sheen of Mitchellite, through the purple glare and a singing in my ears, I see Mitchell himself, standing in the doorway of a kind of bunker.

He's older than I remember or imagined, the Boy Scout look transmuted into a scrawny geezer wearing only ragged stained shorts, desert boots, and wraparound shades, his skin tanned a mahogany brown. I lean on the crowbar, taking great gulps of air as I try and get my breath back, and he looks at me calmly. There's a pump-action Mossbauer shotgun leaning on the wall beside him.

At last, I can say, "This is some place you got here, Elliot. Where did you get all the stuff?"

"It's a garden," Mitchell says, and picks up the shotgun mid walks off around the bunker. He has half-healed scars on his back. Maybe he brushed a little too close to something in his maze.

I follow. The bunker is a poured concrete shell, a low round dome like a turtle shell half-buried in the dry desert dirt. There's a battered Blazer parked at the back, and a little Honda generator and a TV satellite dish. A ramp of earth leads up to the top of the bunker, and we climb up there and stand side by side, looking out over the maze. It extends all around the bunker. The sun is burning over our shoulders, and the concentric spirals of encrusted junk shimmer and glitter, taking the light and making it into something else, a purple haze that glistens in the air, obscuring more than it reveals.

"How long have you been doing this, Elliot? It looks like you've been here years."

Elliot Mitchell says, "You ever been to South America, Ray? You should have. They're very big on flying saucers in South America. Out in Peru, there are patterns of stones in the deserts that only make sense from the air. Like landing strips, parking aprons."

A chill grips me. "You're building a spaceport?"

"We never had any evidence that they came from outer space," Mitchell says.

"What are you saying, they're from Peru? There's some bad shit on Earth, but nothing like those things. What are you doing here, Elliot? Trying to turn yourself into one of them? Listen, if you've found anything out, it'll mean a shitload of attention. That's what I . . ."

"More talk shows, Ray? More ten-line fillers in Time? I had some guy from the National Enquirer come by a month or so ago. He tried to get in. Maybe he's still in here, somewhere."

I remember the red marks on Mitchell's map, in the otherwise blank space of the maze.

I say, "You let me in, Elliot."

"You understand, Ray. You were there, with me. You know what it was like. Only you and me really know what it was like."

I see why he wants me here. Mitchell has built this for a purpose, and I'm supposed to tell the world what that is. I say, "What are you planning. Elliot? What are you going to do with all this?"

Mitchell giggles "I don't control it, Ray. Not anymore. It's more and more difficult to get out each time. When we went to get Susan, where did we go?"

He's setting me up for something. I say dumbly, "Into the ship. That's how I knew to get to you here. This is like the ship."

"It's how I started it out. But it's been growing. Started with a bare ounce of Mitchellite, grew this garden over the template I made. Now it grows itself. Like the ship. We went in, and we went somewhere else. Not all the way, because it hadn't finished growing, but a good way. Back toward where they came from. Wherever it was."

"You're saying the ship didn't come from Outer Space?"

"It grew here. Like this." Mitchell makes a sweeping gesture with the shotgun, including everything around him. He's King of the Hill. "Once a critical density had been reached, the gateway would have opened, and they would have come through."

"They did come through. We poisoned them, we shot them, we blew up their fucking ship—"

"Mitchellite is strange stuff, Ray. Strange matter. It shouldn't exist, not in our universe, at least. It's a mixture of elements all with atomic weights more than ten times that of uranium. It shouldn't even get together in the first place without tremendous energies forcing the quarks together, and it should fly apart in a picosecond after its creation. But it doesn't. It's metastable. It makes holes in reality, increases quantum tunneling so that things can leak through from one universe to another. That's how they probed us. Sent a probe through on the atomic scale and let it grow. Maybe they sent millions of probes, and only one hit the right configuration. Before we sent up astronauts, we sent up chimps and dogs. That's what they did. They sent through seeds of the things we saw, and they lodged and grew."

"In the cows."

Great chunks had been ripped out of the cows I found. Nyquist thought it was chainsaw butchers, until I dug around and found the blisters inside the meat. Like tapeworm cysts. And Susan, Susan, when we got her out . . .

"In the cows," Mitchell says. "That was the first stage. And then they took Susan. That was the second stage, Ray. First chimps, then the astronauts. But we stopped it."

"Yeah. We stopped it."

Mitchell doesn't hear me. He's caught up in his own story.

He says, "They gave the first astronauts ticker-tape parades down Wall Street, but what happened to the chimps? First time around they picked us up and husked us of our stories and forgot us. Second time is the ticker-tape parade."

Susan never came around. That was a blessing at least. Doc Jensen wouldn't believe me when I told him that I figured what had happened to the cattle was happening to her. Not until that night, when the things started moving under her skin. He tried to cut them out then, but they were all through her. So I did the right thing. Doc Jensen couldn't, even though he saw what was inside her. He'd still stuck with his oath, even though he had a bottle of whiskey inside him. So I did what had to be done, and then we went out and blew up the ship.

Mitchell tells me, "You have to believe it, Ray. This time they won't forget us. This time we'll control it. They tried to discredit me. They stole my records, they said I was as crazy as Nyquist and tried to section me, they made up stories about finding terrestrial deposits of Mitchellite. Well, maybe those were real. Maybe those were from previous attempts. It's a matter of configuration."

He gestures with the shotgun again, and that's when I cold-cock him.

He thought I'd be on his side. He thought I wanted nothing more than fame, than to get back the feeling we had in those two days. He was right. I did. His mistake was that he thought I'd pay any price. And forgetting to put on a shirt.

The crowbar bounces off his skull, and he falls like an unstrung puppet. I kick the shotgun off the domed roof and then he looks up at me and I see what he's done to himself. The sunglasses have come off, and his left eye is a purple mandala.

When I finish, there isn't much left of the top of his head. In amongst the blood and brains: glittering purple-sheened strands, like cords of fungus through rotten wood. A couple of the things inside him try to get out through the scars on his back, but I squash them back into Mitchell's flesh.

After I kill Mitchell, I take the gasoline from his generator and burn the dome without looking to see what's inside it, and smash as much of the whole center of the maze as I can. I work in a kind of cold fury, choking in the black smoke pouring out of the dome, until I can hardly stand. Then I toss the crowbar into the flames and walk out of there.

There's no sign of the FBI agents, although their car is still there when I get out. Winter and Bissette are still back there, incorporated. I hope to God they're dead, although it isn't likely. But the maze has stopped growing, I know that. The light's gone from it. There's a cell phone in the glove compartment, and I use the redial button and tell the guy on the other end that Winter and Bissette are lost, that the whole place has to be destroyed.

"Don't go in there to look for them. Burn it from the air, it would give them a kindlier death. Burn it down and blow it up. Do the right thing. I made a start. They won't come back."

When I say it, for the first time, it sounds finished.

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