by Mac Tonnies
(Previously unpublished. Illustration by Chris Joseph.)
The man strapped into the thin metal flight chair regarded the craft's interior through anesthetized torpor. Clayton and Osborne stood at the periphery of the cabin, faces impassive, while orderlies bound the man's lips together with aromatic glue. Beyond the craft's oblong windows, a dry desert wind intruded from the west, momentarily eclipsing the sun with grit.
Next to the man was a woman, similarly bound to her flight chair. Both wore tight foil suits that lent them the illusion of metallic nakedness; Osborne watched with interest as the woman struggled, her jaundiced skin flushing as an orderly set to work on sealing her lips.
Mulliss entered the cabin and gazed excitedly at the wastes far below. Wind shook the craft; Clayton and Osborne steadied themselves on the backs of the flight chairs, gloved hands in dark contrast to the predominating faux-metallic sheen.
"A nice job on the instrument boards," Mulliss said, revealing small teeth as he spoke. His eyes were narrow and approving behind a pair of cheap plastic sunglasses. He rested his hands on the instruments arrayed before the seated couple.
"We went with the four-fingered tactile interface this year," Clayton said, rummaging his pockets. He withdrew a crooked cigarette and glanced appealingly at Osborne and Mulliss, who offered permissive nods.
"Of course," Mulliss said, "the more accurate designs necessitated making corresponding alterations in our subjects." He nodded at an orderly, who extended the hand of the bound woman, emphasizing the puckered scar where her thumb had been removed. "A contingent within the Archival community wanted to rework the bone structure as well, but we simply don't have the tech."
Clayton blew smoke, the corner of his mouth twitching. "Maybe next year," he said, dour.
Osborne removed his wire-rimmed glasses and slipped them into his breast pocket. "We can't be certain that the originals even had four fingers," he said, fondling the woman's hand. He noted that her skin had been chemically bleached a disorienting gray-yellow. Her hair, fingernails and eyelids had all been removed in order to conform with the Project's ideal.
"What do you mean?" Mulliss asked.
"The reports conflict. Just ask the Archivists."
Mulliss's expression soured. He plucked a syringe from his pocket and eased it into a plump, sweaty arm. He gnashed his teeth, waited, and walked slowly to the hatch, which he threw open with sacrilegious abandon.
Clayton and Osborne exchanged glances and followed, leaving the orderlies to attend to the immobilized subjects.
The craft had been constructed atop a tenuous-looking gantry. The wind shrieked through its partitions, slowly but inexorably abrading away centuries' worth of dust. Below, adobe-style huts lined forking gravel streets like so many blisters, their doors barricaded with sheets of foil and faded plastic.
The three men paused at the edge of the gantry's launch aperture, Mulliss sulking while he slowly adjusted his sunglasses. He spread his arms in an ungainly parody of flight. Clayton took hold of his shoulders while Osborne, standing at the opposite railing, issued soothing noises indistinguishable from the wind.
"What about the autopsy footage?" Clayton said, unnerved and hopeful. The shining bulk of the craft loomed to his immediate left, stenciled with lavender hieroglyphs.
Osborne stepped forward. "The departure is only a day away," he said. "We don't have time to bog ourselves down with particulars . . ."
"Particulars are what the Project is all about," Mulliss hissed. He looked briefly up at the sun. "There are so many variations we haven't tried. Surely you can recognize my impatience."
"Certainly we can," Clayton said. "That's why we give this another go each year." He steered Mulliss to the gantry's ladder, the rungs of which had collapsed into splinters and narrow, beaten shards of sand-encrusted metal. "You've done your job thoroughly," he said, accenting each syllable with mechanical urgency.
They descended the ladder, bits of wood and metal showering down beneath their booted feet. The cyst-like huts drew nearer and almost welcoming; Clayton could make out his own, its apex bristling with decorative antennae and streamers of foil. Above him, moving ponderously, Mulliss muttered epithets at the descending sun.
That night Clayton dreamed of his childhood, his earliest recollections of the Reenactment. His father had been adamant to the point of preoccupation, bringing home Archival tomes to study despite the warnings of Clayton's mother. Even then, forty-some years ago, the pages had been brittle and discolored. Clayton imagined they would be even more so if not for the perennially dry desert air, which had an embalming effect on all it touched; even at the time of his death, his father had appeared oddly youthful, eyes gleaming with a boyish enthusiasm as timeless as the dark between stars.
In his dreams, Clayton stood at the threshold of a long-abandoned town, watching a mock-up flying saucer roar frightfully to his demise. He had naively expected to see his father's fixation consummated in all of its sordid glory: the rending of metal as the craft plowed into a wall of rock, the sudden scattering of diminutive bodies. Back then, the Project had recruited midgets for the Reenactment whenever possible. Now it used whoever it could find, although Project recruiters paid special attention to cranial volume and the size of the selectee's orbital sockets. Clayton himself had been subjected to much poking and prodding upon adolescence, his father silently hopeful that he would be chosen.
His rejection, curiously, had left his father's preoccupation unscathed; he had immediately thrown himself into preparations for the next year's Reenactment, reading long into the night and drafting speculative papers on a manual typewriter that punctuated the stillness as Clayton lay in bed, consumed in an unlikely mix of relief and self-loathing.
There was always next year.
Clayton and Osborne met each other early the next morning, relishing the cool dawn air. They walked through the sand to an overturned trailer that had been gutted and equipped with vinyl-topped barstools. The side of the trailer (now its "ceiling") had been sawed away to allow passable headroom. The overall effect was that of an open-air corridor, only partly sheltered from the wind.
Nevertheless, the trailer had long been recognized as a sort of public forum, and the Project administrators felt obliged to be seen there once or twice during the Reenactment's final preparations. Their presence reassured the community that the penultimate questions still demanded attention, assuaged any doubts that the Project had become any less important as the years ground on with no apparent success.
Clayton felt acutely embarrassed for not knowing what, precisely, the goal of the Project was. Presumably his father had known -- or had his obsession been camouflage for a similar ignorance? He had never asked his mother, whose attitude toward the annual Project had always been one of concealed disinterest. But on the same token, she had accepted it has an article of faith that the Project encoded some transcendental virtue. Her disdain for her husband's research surfaced only when relatively mundane aspects of her life were strained or neglected. Clayton had learned from a very young age to accept his parents' differing attitudes as quaint, harmless and, quite likely, widespread as well.
An elderly waitress approached, moving stiffly through the morning crowd.
"I think we have a better chance this year than out of all the years I've been affiliated with the Project," Osborne said over a chipped earthenware mug. He drank his coffee in infuriately delicate sips, letting the brackish drink form a greasy patina on the end of his tongue.
Clayton nodded his agreement and resumed pondering the schematics on the Formica countertop. The final decisions had, of course, already been made. But attending to the drawings gave his presence here meaning; he became aware of a few hushed stares as patrons set their coffee aside to crane their necks at his idiot labors.
"Mulliss--" he began.
Osborne blinked. "What about him?"
"I wonder if his . . . dispositions threaten the Project."
Osborne became solemn. "He expects results too soon," he said, eyeing Clayton with glacial professionalism. "Let's keep it at that."
Clayton nodded, then looked up at the desert sky. Dense clouds scudded along the horizon; lightning flickered. "It's a good day for the Reenactment," he said, dubious. Hadn't the Archives described the crash happening in a rainstorm? He remembered sitting up long into the night listening to his father's manically recited reconstructions. His sleep had been hounded by images of out-of-control spacecraft zigzagging through spikes of lightning, huge explosions that almost went unheard through peals of thunder.
"We're expecting a storm," Osborne said, drinking more coffee. His dirty fingers seemed fused with the earthen mug, as if baked out of the same anemic clay. Clayton watched him set the mug aside and gather a sheaf of papers, which he tucked under his arm. Clayton followed suit, distantly pleased by the inquisitive stares that tracked his progress as he exited the overturned trailer and out into the encroaching gloom.
Mulliss was in the midst of withdrawing a needle from his arm when Osborne and Clayton entered his shabby office. The walls of the photo-encrusted cubicle rattled as the storm approached. Clayton smelled asbestos and ozone mingled in a sickening bouquet.
"We've got clearance from the guys in Weather," Mulliss said, surprisingly lucid. He winced, wiping a few amber beads from the festering needle-track that adorned his forearm.
"What did the balloon surveys say?" Osborne asked, setting his papers on Mulliss's thin masonite desk.
"We didn't use balloons this year," Mulliss said, forceful. "We've found that the introduction of blatantly terrestrial artifacts into the atmosphere at the time of a Reenactment only produces confusion." He gestured limply at a beaten-looking hexagonal device that dangled from the office's ceiling, swaying on a few threads of monofilament. "You see that thing, Clayton?"
Clayton nodded. "A Rawin target, if memory serves."
"Fucking right. Look like a spaceship to you?"
Clayton hesitated. "No, sir."
Mulliss leveled his rheumy eyes at Osborne, who stiffened as if galvanized by the still-distant lightning. "What about you, Osborne?"
"No," he said, his voice nearly drowned in a blast of thunder. "It looks decidedly terrestrial to me, too."
"The craft is intended to crash right about here," Clayton said, waving his arm at the field. Thick weeds grew in malign clumps, yellow fronds extended into the cold air like eager, supplicating hands. He scanned the sky with binoculars and huddled inside the rubberized shroud that served as his raincoat.
"See anything?" Osborne asked. Rain beaded on his stubbled cheeks; his lips somehow excited the condensation into a subtle froth which he occasionally wiped away with a mud-stained finger.
"Not yet." Clayton stepped back to the Jeep and sat miserably in the driver's seat. "You know, we're not supposed to be here," he said, glancing sidelong at the horizon. A few bolts of lightning teased the ground like luminous fingers.
"There weren't any witnesses to the original crash," Clayton said. "We're here out of practical necessity, not out of any need for verisimilitude."
Osborne slurped coffee from an antique plastic thermos. "When I was a kid they let the townspeople wait at the impact site. We all used to dress up, stand around on the rocks, just waiting."
"Same here." Again, he put the binoculars to his eyes, felt the caress of the wet rubber eyepieces. It rained harder, beating against the Jeep, gouging out small craters in the ruined soil. "What were you waiting for?" he asked suddenly.
Rain smacked his face, making a liquidous mockery of his binoculars' field of vision.
Osborne looked away and pretended to lose himself in the act of drinking from his thermos.
"Are you going to answer me or not?" Clayton challenged, brushing water from his eyes.
"We learned not to ask." Osborne shrugged, watching the weeds sag and tremble as the downpour increased. "What about you?"
"Wait--" Clayton had the binoculars pressed tightly against his face; he stood with one hand outstretched to silence Osborne. "I see something."
The men waited silently for a moment. "I see it too," Osborne said, voiced stripped of nuance. "Anticipated approach trajectory, looks to me. I think we'll be safe here."
The craft materialized high above, glowing Jack-o-lantern orange as it dipped, steadied itself, and dipped again. Roughly crescent-shaped, it emitted an alarming subsonic wail as it ducked blindly through a burst of lightning. For a lunatic instant, Clayton wished the craft's occupants luck . . . wished that they could wrest control of their fate and pilot their vehicle to some safe haven, far from the gantry's skeletal shadow and the sprawl of the township's cramped earthen domes.
He remembered the traumatized eyes of the two crew-members, and wondered what they were thinking and seeing as their craft homed in on its destination. He imagined four-fingered hands fumbling with the control boards Mulliss had boasted about. The "tactile interface" was bogus, of course. Just trompe l'eoil, as meaningless as the immaculate hieroglyphs painted across the craft's hull. Once launched, there was no way to steer the craft from its programmed flight path.
Surely, Clayton told himself, the occupants knew and understood this. Then again, maybe their perceptions had been altered by the Project's applied research team; maybe they'd been coached into actually believing that they were emissaries from some other world, committed to obscure motives.
"It's coming at us . . ." Clayton threw himself into the dirt as the craft impacted. Osborne, silhouetted against the craft's glow, stumbled from the Jeep and hit the ground head-first, throwing up a pall of earth that came spattering down around them.
Clayton turned in time to see the craft slam against the specified outcropping of rock. The hull blew apart, sending sheets of metal flying out into the dark. The Jeep rocked from the impact; a fist-sized shard of metal buried itself in the steering column, its edges worn to burnished perfection.
Cloying black smoke issued from the shattered cockpit as instruments fizzled and fuel lines split open like vivisected snakes. And then Clayton could hear the rain again, hammering its endless watery code on the Jeep's hood. The sound reminded him of his father's typewriter, of half-remembered plans drafted decades ago and left to yellow in the Archives.
The air cleared. Clayton lay in the dirt as the ruined craft cooled in the rain. Gusts of metallic steam swatted his face as if reminding him of some unnamed dereliction of duty.
Mulliss arrived within minutes, escorted by a covey of Archivists in faux-military garb that clung wetly to their skin. He appraised the wreck from under a muddied umbrella, eyes wide and edged with hysteria. He bounded out of his Jeep and began circling the impact site, occasionally sliding in the mud. Clayton and Osborne offered their shoulders for support; Mulliss gripped them, letting his umbrella fall to the metal-strewn ground.
"The bodies," he breathed. "Have you found the bodies?"
"It's too hot. Something might explode," Osborne said. "I say we wait; we can have some personnel with fire extinguishers on-site within an hour." He rapped the CB radio that clung to his belt like an engorged metal parasite.
"There's no danger," Mulliss said, slipping free of his comrades' support. He staggered up to the crumpled fuselage, hands outspread as if to measure potential danger with his fingertips.
He moved his arms in a slow, cryptic dance, hefting rain in his palms. "This is what it was like!" he exclaimed, drawing nearer to the downed craft. He assumed a simian crouch and approached one of the fissures, boots crushing bits of scorched foil into the wet ground.
He turned back to Osborne and Clayton, giddy. "Clayton! Help me out here, will you?"
Clayton hurried forward. The metallic smell he had noticed earlier resolved into burning plastic and charred flesh. He put a hand to his throat.
Mulliss was lugging a body out of the fuselage. Clayton recognized the blank, fish-like stare of the woman he had examined the previous day. Her legs had been sliced from her torso by the compressed hull; it was as if she had been pushed into the maw of some unheeding industrial machine. Her blood had burned into a thick copper-colored film that mingled with the rain, spawning amber rivulets that pooled on the warped cabin floor.
One of Mulliss's cohorts appeared, dragging a chalk-white body-bag that slid through the mud like a tumorous snake. He yanked its zipper and gestured eagerly. Clayton paused, dizzy from the stench, and saw that the bag-bearer held a toy machine gun in one hand. "Get those bodies out of there," he said, shaking the body-bag with his other hand. His eyes stared into emptiness; he moved with the stiff, palpable embarrassment of a novice thespian.
Osborne emerged from the rain, gratefully lifting Mulliss's parasol from the ground and shaking it dry under the relative warmth of the wreck. "You heard the man," he said, addressing Clayton. "Let's get this site secured."
Clayton obliged, his own limbs moving with mechanical severity, shedding tears that vanished under sheets of soiled rain.
"We can't expect immediate success," Osborne said from across the small table. He picked at the curling linoleum with yellowed fingernails. The waitress poured coffee for them, summoning a dutiful smile as Clayton removed the last of the post-Reenactment schematics from the table.
"What constitutes success?" he asked as the waitress scurried away, blue-white hair lit by the morning sun. He clenched his fists, watching with clinical interest as they grew white and bloodless. "Why the hell are we doing this?"
Osborne seemed not to hear. "But we've got next year. And next year is, of course, another story. Mulliss will refine the details, I'm certain." He engaged Clayton in a haphazard toast. "We'll get it right one of these days."
The coffee tasted more bitter than usual, Clayton thought, setting his cup aside. He continued pondering his hands, trying to think of some reply to Osborne's inexplicable optimism.
"I have to visit the hangar today," he said, detesting the sound of his cracked voice. He had caught cold last night, standing out in the rain. He swallowed mucous, managed an apologetic smile.
"I've never been to the hangar," Osborne said. "I gather it's something of a privilege."
"I suppose so." Clayton stood up, taking his cup and saucer with him as he exited the trailer and made for the air field, dark hair tousled by the morning wind.
The base loomed closer, a sprawl of ancient concrete and crumbling wooden buildings. A few derelict planes littered the runways, rusted into monochromatic imitations of their former selves. The hangar presided over the base, a dilapidated sentinel.
As he stepped onto the concrete, he became aware of uniformed guards standing watch at the hangar's threshold, make-believe guns held at ready. One of the soldiers approached him, head cocked to one side as if sizing him up for an unspecified contest. "You Clayton?"
"I'm here by orders of Mulliss," he said, attempting to summon some vestige of military discipline. He found he couldn't; the military was a mythical creature, a sordid otherworld glimpsed only through Archival recordings.
The guard nodded briskly. "Follow me."
They wound toward the hangar, dodging crevasses in the sun-baked concrete. Insolent weeds had erupted through the bone-white cement. Someone had stoppered some of the potholes and fissures with asphalt; the occasional black patches reminded Clayton of melanoma. The base was dying. He could feel its patient death reiterated in his bones, reflected in the tired geometry of his gait.
He followed the "soldier," numb, pouring his now-lukewarm coffee onto the ground as if to mark his progress. He let the cup and saucer fall to the concrete, kicking its fragments out of his way as he shuffled onward.
They arrived at the hangar's gates. A wheelbarrow lay waiting in the sunlight, burdened with a dirty white shape Clayton recognized immediately as one of the body-bags from last night's Reenactment.
"Take it inside," the guard said. He glanced at one of his fellows, who began wrestling with an elaborate pull chain. One of the hangar gates creaked opened. Clayton watched, fascinated despite himself, as the flaking white door ascended into the gloom, revealing a dark cement floor and the glimmer of far-away metal. He stood blinking in the sun. "What do you want me to do?"
The guard who had opened the gate pointed at the wheelbarrow. "Take it inside. It's marked with a number. Put it on the right pile."
Clayton gripped the wheelbarrow, careful not to let the stiff cargo fall to the pavement. He proceeded inside, relieved by the remarkably cool air. His eyes adjusted to the darkness. The hint of metal he had seen from outside became a latticework of crudely welded shelves: a demented filing cabinet that wound through the hangar as far as his eyes could discern. Lank, wrinkled shapes filled the latticework, tire upon rusted tier. Hundreds of them. Thousands. Slipshod wooden plaques lined the cabinets, each marked by a number.
The thin shapes, piled carefully on the ancient shelves, became clearer as his eyes adjusted to the hangar's near total-darkness. Something cold and awful stirred in his groin, a latent recognition that he was among the dead.
The shapes were emaciated torsos, mummified by the dry air. As he stepped back, he noticed horizontal forests of stick-thin arms, blossoms of scar tissue where surgeons had tried to sculpt human anatomy to into hideous nonhuman ideal:
Three-fingered hands; four-fingered hands; six-fingered hands . . . an exhibition of altered bone structure, eye sockets whittled into slanted pits that cradled the dried remains of ink-black contact lenses.
He extended his hand and let his fingers brush a huge, hairless cranium mottled with decay. The skin broke beneath his touch like old paper, revealing a gridwork of surgical steel. The skull had been forcefully enlarged, molded into a thick balloon of bone and flesh. He withdrew his hand and closed his eyes against the panorama of stacked bodies, failed experiments -- sacrificial victims the Project had catalogued for future reference.
Here, Clayton thought, was where Mulliss made his rounds on sleepless desert nights, conjuring up plans for the coming year's Reenactment. He had wanted Clayton to see, and to understand with the clarity he had always shunned or avoided (endless sleepless nights spent shivering in time to the staccato pounding of his father's typewriter...)
Clayton deposited his burden on the correct stack and headed for the gate, out into the balmy morning glow. One of the guards looked at him, curious, but said nothing.
He began the walk back into town. At the edge of the ruined air field he sat down on a shelf of chipped white concrete and put his hands to his face. "There's always next year," he had said the morning before. The last few days leading to the predictably botched Reenactment were like an ugly reflection staring up at him from a puddle of muddy water.
In the distance, someone was launching a weather balloon array. The device drew itself into the sky like a jellyfish tentacle, swayed in a sudden wind, and began dragging its thin foil radar targets across the sand. The array's line broke, leaving the targets shiny and useless on the ground while the remainder of the array quickened its ascent.
Clayton watched it disappear from view, becoming a node of dull silver that might have been an aircraft, or a cloud, or maybe the bit of dust that was causing his eyes to tear.
The morning sun crept over Roswell, New Mexico, keeping vigil over the silent desert.