I shut my eyes and I’m on Zarathan again.
I shut my eyes and all the road noise dwindles to a rumble and then to nothing. My black Excursion fades to shadow, the steering wheel becomes mist in my hands. I’m tucked up in my somna-pod for the lunar cycle, hanging by my hind-limbs in a state of trance.
My name is Grover Tattle. I’m thirty-four. Ex-Air Force. 23rd Airborne. Honorably discharged. To the outside observer I am a flesh-and-blood human being with skin and teeth and chest hair and whatever goes in between. You can look in my eyes and shake my hand and know with one-hundred-percent certainty I am a man like you. But when I shut my eyes I can feel Mother-Teacher stroking my mantle soothingly, singing the moonsong in her high, lutish voice.
Then a horn honks—a squeal of tires, a rattle of big engines, and I’m back in the world, sweat pouring down my face.
There was the War. I’ll spare you the history lesson: whatever I’m authorized to divulge won’t make you any smarter, Doc. The fact was, our side wasn’t going to win. Even with all our bombs and planes and cruise missiles, we didn’t have a meatball’s chance. That was the genius of the enemy program. They out-bred us. They would take us like an anthill takes a termite mound. Superior numbers. A Zerg rush. But we found a way somehow.
The Cubes turned the tide. They had the numbers. They had the manpower. But we had the Cubes, and against the Cubes their swarm tactics didn’t mean a thing. Ten years ago in March our CO marched us down to hangar 11 for briefing, and in the center of the floor there were five big vehicles covered up by tarps held down by ropes and bungee cords all over. And next to these there were two men, one short with a red face, one very tall with thick gleaming glasses. Both of them wearing black tailored suits and decorated like generals, but for some reason they didn’t strike me as military. I saw the other guys saluting so I saluted too.
Our CO introduced the men as Doctors So and So, and right off these two took command of the briefing. The short man with the red face did all the talking. He said a lot of long words about the enemy and our country and fighting the good fight, lots of things people who haven’t ever seen combat like to say to soldiers to make themselves feel important. Then the tall man with the thick glasses pulled the tarp off one of the big somethings and there it was, gleaming under the big LED hangar lights. Looked a bit like one of those old kid’s toys, a Rubik’s cube. Three stories tall, colors all over, and shiny. Then our CO stepped forward and said, we need ten big strong men to fly this aircraft.
Strong men, they said. That’s important, Doc. Not brave men, not smart men. Brains don’t enter into it. Flying a Cube’s a muscle job, it turns out. But we didn’t know this at the time. What we knew was that our commanding officer had just asked us for ten big strong men. That day, nine of the biggest sumbitches you ever saw took one step forward. And me, being one of the biggest and the strongest, I stepped forward too.
You ever seen a Q-Bert, Doc? Not many pictures of them ever showed up on the news. Most were fakes—photoshopped, or artists’ renditions. But a few real-deal snaps came up on the independent channels every so often. Those got taken down the fastest by Unc Sam, of course. But I saw one once, a real one, as close to me as I am to you now. Big sumbitches. That’s how they fly those big spacecraft all by themselves, with all those moving parts. Bigger’n five men, all head and legs, like a big old octopus. With a funny tube mouth just like a tube of lip balm, but with teeth in rings going down into the gullet. “Zarathanaean” is the proper name for them, but after the first drawings came out everybody started calling them Q-Berts, on account of their snouts.
The first and last time I ever saw a Q-Bert I was under sedation and about to go under. They were wheeling us into surgery, one after the other in a line like train cars. Put us on flat gurneys with our faces up staring at piercing white ceiling. I was the last one they brought in. My wingman Jools went in before me, but he got a heavier dose of the dope and was out cold when they wheeled him through the curtain. My turn came and Doctors So and So came out and asked how I was feeling. The short red-faced one started in on his God and country speech again and I admit my mind wandered a bit.
Two orderlies came around behind me and pushed me through the curtain into a small white room with a very bright light overhead. They left me there drifting on the edge of consciousness from the sedative, and when I craned my neck to see more of the room I saw I wasn’t alone. On a raised platform next to me was strange creature, tied down with thick straps and lying motionless a little ways behind me. Of course it was a Q-Bert. I’d heard the rumors—something crash-landed in a Texas desert somewhere, big as a house and with more legs than you can count on your fingers. The thing lay still and its funny tube mouth was drooped off the side of the platform, kind of hanging limp. Its single Frisbee eye was open but glazed over, dead and kind of smoothed over, like a glass eye in a doll’s face. The Q-Bert was dead, but for some reason I felt like that one huge eye was watching me, asking me for something. I heard a rustle of fabric to my right—and suddenly, the eye snapped shut. I was so rattled I didn’t think to ask why the Doctors were strapping me down as well.
This is the part of the show where I’m supposed to say, “…and I don’t remember too much after that.” But it’s not true. They didn’t dope me all the way. I was awake when they opened me up. Foggy, yes, and numb as a fence post, but conscious—that’s important, Doc. Every so often I remember flashes, little micro-scenes. They shaved my head and waxed it, and took a three-inch chunk off the top of my skull. I remember somebody leaning over me, looking into that hole in my skull, saying “Now we are all sumbitches.” I remember his shadow crossing my face. Then they stuck a syringe through the hole in my head and filled my skull with blinding light.
How do you teach a man to fly an alien spacecraft? That was the trick. Nobody knew how the Cubes worked, and even if they did they couldn’t train ten big strong men to fly them. I flew an F-11 in the 23rd Airborne, and I can tell you that when you’re flying something that big and loud and fast your brain has no idea what it’s doing. Your hands and feet know how to fly, what switches to flip or pedals to depress to get you out of a screaming nosedive a hundred feet from the ocean. You can’t teach that. You’ve got to know it from hours and hours up in the air. The memory lives in the bones of your hands, the muscles of your wrists, in your eyes and ears and elbows.
I felt the needle go in, even through the sedative. Whoever’s hand it was trembled as he pushed the plunger; I could feel the cold steel noodling around in my brain tissue. Hurt like a bastard. I think I screamed, but at that odd moment in time I couldn’t be certain that it wasn’t the alien behind me who screamed instead. I remember there was a great commotion to my immediate left. There were long waxy arms waving high in the air, knocking surgical equipment about the room in a fleshy maelstrom. The Doctors left my side, and in an instant the pain in my head spiked up like a volcano erupting and I tore through my restraints like a wild beast and I woke up in my cot at the airbase feeling fine.
I’ll ask again: how do you teach a man to fly an alien spacecraft? You make him remember how it’s done. Alien recall in his blood, alien attitudes in his brain. You get him the memories he needs from some far-flung star, and as long as he’s a big sumbitch who’s used to obeying orders he’ll do the job and won’t ask why. We flew the Cube, us ten big strong men. Only we weren’t ten men any longer. They made us one animal, those Doctors, one unit, one machine, one cohesive whole. We all got memories from the same Q-Bert, you understand. That’s why they needed ten men—one for each arm. I told you how big those bastards are.
Here is a disappointing fact for you, Doc. I don’t remember the Battle of Lhodad at all. I could tell you the official story they gave the papers, but you’ve read that already. Anyways, it was ten years ago. Where I was in the Cube didn’t have a window. I was stuck down in a metal hole in a wall with my arms wrapped around a joystick, working one of four thrusters. I didn’t see a thing going on outside. But I could feel it, like we all could: the alien’s rage, frustration—a kind of sympathetic bloodlust. Only Jools, my wingman, and Old Yarnell got window seats on that flight. Only they saw how many people we killed that day. They were working the turrets.
They say it was a lot of people died that day. We never found out how many, not even a ballpark figure. I think they kept that information from us on purpose, for fear of… well, for fear of what, exactly? I’ve wondered that for a long time.
After the War was won they let us go on our own recognizance. Honorable discharges all ‘round. The message was obvious, I thought: don’t come back. You could see it in the faces of the top brass, even when they were pinning on our medals and clapping us on the back. The fear, the suspicion. None of them would look us in the eye. Up in the air, we were soldiers, weapons. But when the war was over, we became liabilities. So we went home and started our lives over. We got hooked up with jobs or our families, our wives and kids. We tried to act like everything was normal, that nothing had happened. But of course this was absolutely impossible.
At first we didn’t know what was happening to us. There was something inside our heads—a flicker, a small flame of emotion, quivering beside the huge, opaque stranger of our consciousness. Then there was The Name: Quaezl. The realization chimed once, like a gong in all our heads, in all our brains simultaneously. It was like the moment when you’re screwing in a lightbulb and the light comes on for the first time. Instantaneous contact. The Q-Bert — the Zarathanaean — on the table, he had a name, a life. A life we could all suddenly remember in hard, shocking detail. And that’s when it all came flooding back: the rage, the bloodlust, the fear and denial and hard cold intense loneliness.
Old Yarnell was the first to go. His twin grandsons found him swinging from a sturdy beam out in the barn, eyes bugging out like dead white grapes. No note, no will, no warning at all. The papers chalked it up to PTSD, but the rest of us, we read and we knew what had happened. After that we began dropping off fairly quickly. Harley, Gavin, Big Boy, Tank, Johns—all in the span of maybe two weeks. Jools held out the longest. They found him in an old bomb shelter with the back of his skull taken off by a hunting rifle. He’d squeezed the trigger with his toes.
Now you know why I’m here. I honestly don’t want to be. No offense to you, Doc, but I don’t trust lab coats or degrees or Doctors of any kind anymore. But I had to come. Jools was the toughest sumbitch I ever met, and even he didn’t last two weeks after Quaezl woke up. I can feel it in me, the countdown, the time bomb set to implode my brain, make me eat my own gun like Jools did. I didn’t have a family to come back to after the war, and sometimes I wonder if that helped me, not having a reality to come back to that disagreed with Quaezl’s fantasy.
You’ve got to understand, Quaezl knows he’s dead. He understands perfectly that his body is decomposing on a slab in a Texas government laboratory. But when I shut my eyes I can see a fresh new cocoon woven with gossamer threads anchored to an edifice in Mother-Teacher’s home. I can hear Father-Guardian in the room over, humming the closing bars of the moonsong in counterpart to Mother-Teacher. I can smell an amber sunset on the horizon, and feel a hot wind beginning to sweep the dust off a new day. You can shake my hand and touch my flesh and know with one-hundred-percent certainty I am a man like you, but when I shut my eyes I stride like a giant across an unknown world, circling in decaying orbits the fading light of a dying star.
One day soon Quaezl is going to ask me to take him home. I’m running out of ways to say no.
BIO: Don’t buy the hype – Jacob Steven Mohr was not raised by wolves. Feral children are capable of many things, but liquid-smooth prose is not one of them. If it was, we’d all be speaking Wolf. Mohr’s work has appeared in Outrageous Fortune, Aurora Wolf, and Liquid Imagination Magazine.