After a night out, Chet discovers his friends and neighbors may no be who and what they seem. When Chet is hypnotised by a stage performer, he awakens, astonished to find he’s able to now see aliens masquerading as humans, interacting with us and more importantly, slowly gaining control of politics, industry, and the police.
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By M.J. Carlson
Chet stood on the stage with two other young men and three young women. They’d all just finished walking around the stage like a roost of chickens, and no one seemed the least bit embarrassed. His eyes were closed and he was relaxed. The performer who called himself Bartok the Magnificent spoke, filling Chet’s focus, nudging the other thoughts aside.
“When I reach one,” Bartok said, “you’ll all be awake, refreshed as if you’ve had a full night’s sleep. Three. Two. One. Wake up!” He snapped his fingers.
Chet’s eyes opened. He blinked a few times and stretched. He felt great. As the other volunteers started toward their seats, he glanced out at the audience. He froze, unable to believe his eyes. Eight or nine rows back, on the right, sat a… shit, he didn’t know what it was.
It almost looked human, but was a full head taller than the people on either side. Chet wiped his fingers over his eyes and blinked in disbelief.
The thing had two pairs of eyes, not one. A second set were above the normal ones, and on its forehead, which was proportionately longer to accommodate them.
Bartok the Magnificent stepped up beside him, ran his hand over Chet’s face and said, “Sleep.”
Chet dropped back into his relaxed state. The hypnotist said something to the audience about coming out of the trance being more difficult for the strong-willed, and moved in to whisper in Chet’s ear, “I’m sorry.” He slipped something into Chet’s shirt pocket. “When you awaken, act as though nothing is wrong. Come back after the show and I’ll explain. Tell your friends you have a headache and want to go home. Say nothing about anything you see or hear, or you and they will be killed.”
Bartok counted again and snapped his fingers. Chet’s eyes opened as before, but now when he looked at the audience, although he still saw the creature in the eighth row, it looked no more out of place than anyone else. At least a dozen similar individuals were seated here and there in the theater.
Chet moved shakily off the stage and returned where to his friends sat. After a few more tricks, the show ended.
The group left, pushing out into the neon night, Chet carefully avoiding staring at the humanoid creatures on the street on in cars. “Guys,” he said to Bill Armatige, Mike Flowers, and John Miller. “I’m getting a headache. I’m going to head home.” He left his friends and doubled back to the theater, determined to find out what the phony hypnotist had done to him.
A billboard on one of the buildings had a photo of one of those things with the extra eyes, and now that he looked closer, they had gill slits on either side of their necks. Under the image was printed “Work Eight Hours, Play Eight Hours, Sleep Eight Hours.” A few steps further he saw another that said, “Marry and Reproduce,” and “Consume.”
Chet sped up, following an alley around to the side of the theater. A man dressed in black waited, leaning against the building, partly obscured by shadows. Bartok. Chet approached the man.
“What the hell did you do to me?” Chet demanded.
Bartok raised a palm in Chet’s direction. “Shh. You can never know when one might be within earshot.”
Chet stopped. “You mean those things are real?”
Bartok pushed away from the wall. “Let’s walk.” Chet followed the older man through the alley and out onto a deserted street. They turned right.
Chet grabbed the man’s jacket. “I asked you—”
Bartok spun around. “Yes,” he said in a harsh whisper. “They are. Real. I’m sorry. Normally, I recognize someone who’ll likely wake up fully early on. I didn’t in your case.” He tore free from Chet’s grasp and studied the shadows across the street for a moment. “We must keep moving.” He resumed walking.
“What did you do to me?”
“What do you see?”
“I see these… things,” Chet said, his panic bordering on hysteria. “They almost look human, but they aren’t. They have an extra set of eyes and gill slits in their necks. The slits frigging move.”
Bartok nodded. “And the signs. The billboards. What do you see?”
“I don’t know, mottos, slogans, instructions. Saying things like have babies, and shop, and consume more.”
Bartok nodded again. “What you’re seeing is real. I accidentally woke you up. I’ll tell you everything I know. Do not let on that you see them. They’ll kill you. Do you understand?”
“No,” Chet said, his gut twisting. “You did something to me. Some kind of post hypnotic suggestion or something. Make it stop!”
“I’m not going to tell you again to lower your voice. You’ll get us both killed.”
Chet stood on the empty sidewalk, shivering, but not from the cold. “I want you to undo whatever you did. I won’t tell anybody, I promise.”
Bartok shook his head, slowly. “I can’t. Come on, you need to hear this.” He pulled Chet along by the arm. “They showed up about fifty years ago. Nobody knows where they’re from. They sneaked in, somehow creating the illusion they were human from the onset. They’ve gradually moved into positions of power.”
“You mean, like the government?”
“Yes, but also business, entertainment, the police.” Bartok jammed his hands into his pockets. “You name it, they control it.”
“So, the political crap, the labor unions, the—”
“Meaningless,” Bartok said. “They’re on both sides of almost every issue. Did you ever notice how politicians argue, stir things up, and then never change anything?”
“Well, yeah, sure, but I thought that was just politics.”
“Smoke and mirrors. They make us think they’re on opposite sides of an issue, and then it just dries up and blows away.” He held up his fist, opened it, and blew across his palm. “And we forget all about it and go on to the next thing, because we’re programmed to.”
“And you don’t know who they are?”
Bartok shook his head. “No one does.”
“Or where they came from?”
“This is crazy. You expect me to believe we’ve been invaded by another race and we just forget to see them?”
The older man shrugged. “Illusion and expectation are powerful things. Studying its effects has been by life’s work.”
“Well, put me back. I don’t want to see them or hear them.”
“It doesn’t work that way. Once you know something, you can’t just unknow it again. The best I or anyone can do is to plant a suggestion, like I did earlier.” The two men approached an all-night diner. Bartok stopped and turned his collar up against the chilly breeze. “Look across the street and tell me what you see.”
“In the diner?”
Chet glanced in the direction and looked away. “Oh shit. There’s two of them in the diner. They’re dressed like policemen.”
“They aren’t dressed like policemen, they are policemen,” Bartok said. “You see what they’re eating?”
“Of course I see what… They’re eating donuts. Are you kidding me? Donuts?” Chet almost laughed.
“They love donuts,” Bartok said. “They’d sell their own mothers into slavery for donuts.”
“They have mothers?”
“I don’t know what they have,” Bartok said. “I can’t tell if they’re male or female, or even if the concept has any meaning to them. You want some coffee?”
Chet’s stomach turned. He looked away. “Are you nuts? I’m not sitting in the same restaurant with those—things.”
They started walking again. “You better get used to the idea, because there are probably half a dozen at your workplace.”
“What am I going to do?” Chet blew out a breath. “You have to do something.”
“I’ll tell you what you’re not going to do. You’re not going to acknowledge anything’s changed. If you do, they’ll take you off somewhere, and no one’ll ever see you again.”
“So this is it? Live the rest of my life seeing those things everywhere I look, but I can’t tell anyone?” They were almost back to the theater.
“The card I put in your pocket has a phone number on the back. Don’t look at it now or show it to anyone. Tomorrow morning, call the number. The person who answers will be able to help you. There’s a kind of underground, a resistance if you will. You’re a part of that, now, I’m afraid.”
“We have to do something.” Chet was desperate. He couldn’t go around like this. Not for the rest of his life.
“We’re doing all we can.”
They reached the front of the theater, again. “Go home,” Bartok said. “You’ve had a shock.” He held out his hand. “Welcome to the resistance.”
Chet took his hand. “I don’t know whether to thank you or punch you.”
Bartok laughed. It was a low, soft sound.
On the way back to his apartment, Chet passed by advertisement after advertisement in store windows. About half contained either likenesses of the creatures or slogans encouraging consumption, or both. He had to look away.
At home, in his one-bedroom apartment, Chet started to pace, unable to settle himself. At midnight, he headed down his front steps and onto the street in front of his apartment building.
Hands jammed into the pockets of his jeans, he roamed the neighborhood, oblivious to the passing time. The ads grew oddly compelling, but Chet resisted them. Unable to keep moving, he ducked into an alley, leaned against the rough bricks of a building, and closed his eyes.
A long moment later, a harsh, rasping voice to his left said, “Shove off, buddy.”
One of them stood next to a dumpster. Its face shimmered in the gloom and morphed into that of a gray-haired, snaggle-toothed drunk. His threadbare clothes, dirty and tattered, hung loose on his emaciated frame. Chet stood, transfixed, as the alien’s face reverted back to its true form. It walked toward him, smelling of stale sweat.
“I said beat it, asshole. ’Samatter, can’t you hear?” When the alien reached arm’s distance, it shoved Chet, who stumbled and fell.
Chet sat on the dirt and grime in the dimly-lighted alley, surrounded by the stench of garbage as the alien started to laugh. Its laughter built on itself until the thing was doubled over, hands on its knees, cackling. The disgusting bird-chirp sound it made dug into Chet’s mind like blades. He rose and tackled the thing. They scuffled, rolling in the dirt, until Chet’s hand found half a brick.
He swung it.
The alien went down, dazed, and Chet was on him. He brought the brick down two or three times, and the creature lay still. Chet dropped against the rough surface of the wall, the horror of what he’d just done working through him as surely as the garbage stench filling his nose.
He sat, staring.
They would never let this slide. This creature’s fellow invaders would hunt down whoever did this. This wasn’t an old drunk, it was one of their own.
Chet struggled to his feet, checked his jacket. Sickly green blood was spattered across his chest and arm. He needed to get home, rinse it off, or better yet get another jacket. Chet crept to the mouth of the alley and peered out. It was late, and he might have a chance if he kept to the shadows. He took a deep breath and started into the night.
His mind churned to come up with a reason for the green blood on his jacket and skin.
He made it to his building and climbed up the front stairs, exhausted now that the adrenaline was wearing off. He reached into his pocket for his keys.
They were gone.
The alley. His heart skipped.
He needed in. He pressed the button to his neighbor’s apartment.
He pressed it again, held it down longer this time. He glanced around the deserted street, making sure no one was following him.
“Who is it?”
“Tiffany. It’s your neighbor, Chet. Let me in, please. I lost my keys.”
“Chet?” Tiffany’s sleepy, disoriented voice came back over the intercom. “What’re… You know what time it is?”
He checked his watch. It was almost three. “I lost my keys.”
“Hang on.” The door buzzed, and Chet stepped into the lobby. He climbed the stairs to the second floor and found Tiffany Sanders’s head poking out her door. Her dark hair was pulled into matching pig tails and she peered at him through her glasses. She opened the door wider when she saw Chet’s disheveled state. “Oh. My. God. Chet, what happened to you?” Tiffany asked, her face going pale.
Chet eyed her closely, relieved that a she still had the normal number of eyes and lacked gill slits in her neck.
“I couldn’t sleep and went out for a walk. Guy was laying in an alley, moaning, like something was wrong. I walked in and somebody had clocked him. He was in bad shape. Then he grabbed at me and started to shake, and I think he died. It was awful.”
“Did you call the police?” she asked, pulling her robe tighter.
He shook his head. “No. I got the hell out of there. I don’t need the cops, and there was nothing I could do for the guy.”
“You left him?”
“You bet I did.”
“We have to go back and help him. What if somebody saw you leave the alley?”
Chet thought about it for a moment. She was right. He might’ve been seen. He had to go back and look for his keys before someone found the body. “You’re right. I’ll clean up and I’ll go back.”
“I’ll get dressed and go with you,” she said.
Chet stepped toward her door. “Tiffany, wait. That’s crazy. I’ll clean up and change my jacket, and I’ll go back.”
She crossed her arms. “There’s a man injured, maybe dying, and you want to clean up?”
He held his hands out, palms up in a placating gesture. “If I go back like this, the cops’ll think I had something to do with it.”
Chet stepped back. “No. ’Course not. I just freaked out is all. I’ll clean up, go back and help the guy.”
“Maybe we should call the police from here.”
“And we can spend the rest of the night answering questions. That what you want?”
The look of concern on Tiffany’s face turned pouty. “No, but—”
“Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it.”
“Well, okay. Just hurry. Makes me really sad to think about some old guy laying there, maybe dying, and nobody helping him.”
Walter Jansen’s door at the top of the stairs one floor above them swung open, followed by Jansen’s shout. “What the hell are you doing, making all the racket down there? You know what time it is?”
Jansen stomped down the stairs and stepped into the hall opposite Chet. He stared at Chet through four narrowed eyes. Gills on his neck opened and closed. “Well?”
Disgust and loathing welled up in Chet, choking him. In a mindless fit of rage, he shoved the thing pretending to be Jansen off the top step.
The creature tumbled hard and lay still at the bottom of the stairs with his neck bent at an odd angle. Its eyes gazed at the ceiling. Chet stared down from the top of the stairs, feeling empty. He’d just reacted, without thinking, like… an implanted response.
A strangled sound from behind turned Chet toward Tiffany. She gaped at him in wide-eyed horror. He took a step in her direction. She slammed the door. The lock clicked. Her voice came through from inside. “I’m calling the police, Chet.”
He groaned. “Tiffany, wait. I don’t know what’s happening to me. Please,” he said through the door. “Let me in till I can figure this out.” He knocked. “Tiffany?”
Nothing. No use. Chet turned and ran down the stairs, pausing a moment to check the body. It was the same as the others. Why was he…?
Bartok. The bastard had done something to him. He had to get back to the theater, find out where the man was staying and what he’d done while they were on stage.
Chet stumbled out into the night, head pounding. Half a dozen blocks from his apartment, a pair of lights turned onto the street and started in his direction. He ran, turned a corner, and ducked into an alley. He sprinted through the darkness even as the car screeched to a stop behind him. Blue strobes flashed, but these weren’t cops, and they knew…
The alley emptied onto another street. His lungs burned in his chest, his heart thundered in his ears. Across the street, in the middle of the block, was an open space. Just beyond it was the river. If he could make it to the water, he would be safe.
He left the alley and moved into the deserted street. He ran for an empty field between two buildings while behind him shoes pounded on pavement in his direction. As he crossed the street, he caught his reflection in a store window. Looking back at him from the window was his face, except in addition to his normal two eyes, two additional eyes, set into a longer than usual forehead, blinked and focused on him.
“No.” His hands moved to his face. The creature in the window’s hands mimicked his gesture.
The street spun around him. The gill slits on either side go his neck opened wider, letting more air in, responding to his sudden lightheadedness. Chet fought down the panic rising into the back of his throat. He couldn’t let his people…
His people? Thoughts flooded in. His people… were invading this world, terraforming it into something warmer, with the slightly higher concentration of carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide his people needed.
In a few decades, the humans were scheduled for an extinction event, and his people could finally drop their charade. He pressed his hands to his head, against the thoughts crowding in. What had he done? He turned away from the window, breath coming in short gasps. He closed his eyes and stood for a second to catch his breath. When had—Bartok. Somehow Bartok had…
That sonofabitch had fooled him into thinking…
He had to get to the theater.
He wanted to scream. Running footsteps headed toward him in the alley behind. They would never listen to his explanation. The only law they couldn’t break was to kill one of their own.
Chet bounded into the tall grass and weeds, moving away from the light. If he could make it to the theater, he could drag the hypnotist to the police and make him confess to whatever he’d done…
Something hit Chet in the back hard enough to make him jerk and stumble. An explosion sounded in the direction of the street. He didn’t dare look back. The aching spread to his shoulder. It happened again, followed by another blast. Chet had to slow to avoid losing his footing and falling. He was having trouble breathing. He realized with a start he’d been shot.
He coughed. Something wet trickled from his gill slits. He slowed to a walk and touched the base of his neck. His fingers came away covered in blood, the deep green was black in the moonlight.
He stumbled, went down on one knee, looked back. Two of his fellow invaders were walking toward him in the brush. They separated and came at him from two angles, silhouettes stalking him. They were going to take him down like a wild animal. He was tired, having trouble breathing. He reached into his pocket for the card the hypnotist had put there. He could explain, somehow. He drew the card into the moonlight. It was blank.
There was a rustle in the grass to his left as he turned the card over. On the back, black letters marched across the paper. They spelled out the word, “Wake Up.”
The card fluttered away into the darkness. Chet blinked as around him everything shifted, as if coming into sharp focus. He raised his fingers to his neck, but the gills that’d felt so real a moment ago were gone. He turned toward a sound. A figure pointed a gun at his chest. Two, very human eyes stared at him from twenty feet away.
“No,” he said.
The gun flashed in response, and Chet toppled backward into the brush.
Pete stood on the stage with two other young men and four young women. They’d all just finished walking around the stage like a bunch of chickens, and no one seemed the least bit embarrassed. His eyes were closed and he was relaxed, but he was focused on the voice of Bartok the Magnificent.
“When I reach one, you’ll all awake, refreshed as if you’ve had a full night’s sleep. Three. Two. One. Wake up!” Bartok snapped his fingers.
Pete’s eyes opened. He blinked a few times and stretched. He felt great. He looked out at the audience as the other volunteers started toward their seats. He froze, unable to believe his eyes. Six or seven rows back, in the middle of the row, sat a… thing. He didn’t know what it was.
He took a half-step back.
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