Of course everyone blames the aliens. But they were working right up until ten minutes before the blast, that's what really bothers me, and that's what makes me think it was all just bad timing. Bad timing for Janna and me, too, when I stop and think about it. We'd be long gone from here if it hadn't been for the Wannoshay. Now I'm out of work, we've moved everything out of our apartment once again, and the investigators are asking me what I know.
What I know is this: the Wannoshay had been here only eight months when the brewery blew up. They'd crashed to Earth -- "fell out of the winter sky" was how the anchors on the Netstream described it -- in the middle of a late-October snowstorm. One of their three dozen ships had landed just a mile outside Milwaukee. I had trouble believing that aliens were actually here, in our city, but work kept me too busy to worry about them, until that day in May.
So it was a surprise to me when Angie, our supervisor, told us the Wannoshay were coming to the brewery to work, loading and unloading the casks in refrigeration. It was all part of the integration process, Angie had said. "The mayor wants to show everyone how open and welcoming the people of Milwaukee can be. I think he just wants to earn brownie points with the Wantas so he can check out what's left of their spaceship outside the city."
I knew Roberta was going to throw a fit when she heard that the aliens would be starting the following Monday. Roberta was ten years older than me, but she looked closer to fifty than forty. Someone told me her Bible-thumping husband had shot himself after the aliens first landed, convinced the world was coming to an end. Roberta hadn't been the same since.
As for me, I planned to be down south when I was her age, relaxing in a prefab house close to the beach with my daughter Janna. I'd 'loaded a program about Myrtle Beach off a neighbor's Netstream, and five seconds into the program I decided I wanted to smell salt in the air instead of burnt barley and factory smoke. I imagined Janna's future boyfriends banging on our flimsy door and calling all the time, with the sound of the ocean in the background.
"Terri," someone said next to me. "Terri." I jerked my head up and blinked. Brown bottles were backed up behind my sorter like bugs outside a screen door.
Angie stood next to me, holding an inspection keypad and a stamp gun. "I need you to inspect the last shipment for me again," she said. "Some of the bottles haven't been sealed right, and they're getting skunked. You up to it?"
"Sure," I said, my face hot. I'd been thinking of spaceships falling from the sky like fireflies, hitting the sandy beach outside our Myrtle Beach dream home with sounds like gunshots.
Angie nodded and walked off, disappearing behind a pallet of twelve-pack boxes.
"Wantas are coming to get you, dreamer," Roberta's voice called out. "Better start paying attention, or they'll steal your job, too."
The racket of bottles sliding along the conveyor, on their way upstairs to shipping, drowned out what I was about to say back to her. It wasn't going to be a friendly response.
I walked along the line, clicking a stamp on an occasional bottle with a crooked cap or a broken seal, pulling them off the line. Sweat dripped into my eyes from the heat of the machines. After a few minutes my mind began to wander again, but instead of thinking about the beach, I found myself thinking about the Wannoshay.
Ever since they came here -- "made planetfall," the Netstream anchor's voice blared inside my head -- they've caused nothing but trouble. Janna and I, along with all our neighbors, had to leave our apartment complex in January when the landlord raised the rent too high for any of us to afford. Then, after we'd all moved out or got evicted, he cut a deal with a businessman who started renting it out at lower rates to the aliens, hoping to get some free publicity.
A bottle, broken off at the neck, rattled down the line toward me, and I nearly cut myself on it. "Pay attention, dreamer," I whispered to myself, as the bottles kept coming, never stopping. I clicked the stamp again and again, tallying up the rejects. Each day here on the line was another day closer to leaving Milwaukee behind, forever. Aliens or no aliens.
"What's the difference between a Wanta and a Wannoshay, Mom?" Janna asked the next morning at breakfast. Baked potatoes, left over from last night, and toast. She had on her orange sun earrings, and her brown eyes were almost hidden behind the lenses of her thick glasses. She flattened a mound of sour cream on her potato, then sprinkled sugar on it. Almost all of the other kids in her fifth-grade class had perfect vision, but I couldn't afford the keratotomy like the other parents could. Not if we wanted to get to Myrtle Beach before both of us were old ladies.
"Mom?" Janna asked again.
"They mean the same thing, honey," I said, swallowing hot coffee, trying to wake up. The apartment felt extra stuffy this morning after the ninety-five-degree temperatures of the past two weeks. Of course the air conditioning had gone out again. "One is just uglier. I think they like to be called Wannoshay. Why?"
"The kids at school're talking about them. You know, um, ugly stuff." Janna pushed up her glasses and watched me. She was growing up so fast, and I never got to see her. "I don't get why their kids can't come to school with us."
"They're different, honey. I don't think they can speak our language yet. Though someone at work said they can understand us, somehow. . . ." I swallowed hard and fluttered my T-shirt for a breeze. "Don't worry about them. I imagine they need their space, too, just like us." They already took ours, I wanted to say. "Ready to go?"
"Sure," Janna said, gulping down the last of our milk. I needed to get groceries, but it was only Wednesday, with my next paycheck not until the end of Saturday's shift. We'd get by, somehow. It's not like we had much choice. I handed Janna her keypad and backpack, and we headed out into the early summer sun. In five more days, the aliens would come to work.
Angie, my supervisor, had known for months about my plans to move away, but she never held it against me. She passed me a beer from the mini-fridge in her office, steam rising from the ice-cold bottle. My stomach wanted to turn over at the sight of another bottle of beer after ten hours of staring at bottles on the line, but I twisted off the top anyway and sucked down a big gulp that I could feel all the way down to my toes. Nothing like six o'clock on a Saturday after a long week of work. Hopefully all this overtime will get Janna and me to the beach that much sooner.
"Monday's the big day, you know," Angie said, adjusting her bra strap with an expert flip of the wrist. "Some of the jokers in shipping are calling it the invasion of the beer snatchers."
I grinned and shook my head. "How come they get stuck down in refrigeration?"
Angie leaned back in her chair, polishing off half her beer. "You really were daydreaming the past few days, weren't you? Roberta's been talking non-stop about how the Wannoshay have this ultra-thick skin so they can handle the cold. And they're strong, too. Said she heard all about them from her brother-in-law. He's a cop on their side of town."
"So how come they're just starting to work now? What have they been doing the past few months?" I took another long swallow from my beer and thought about their apartments. It all made me want to gag.
"Stuff like this takes time," she said. "Remember how everyone was convinced back in November that the aliens were invading, that their ratty old ships were just the first wave of some army of killer space aliens? At least we didn't have riots here like they did in Minneapolis."
I nodded, thinking about the packed churches right before Christmas last year. Lots of folks had thought it was the Second Coming or Armageddon, or both. I thought of Roberta's husband and shuddered. "I guess you're right. Maybe if there had been an invasion, I wouldn't have gotten evicted from my old apartment."
Angie opened another beer and gave a quick laugh. She leaned back again and flipped the bottle top onto the table. "This is like nothing else we've ever experienced, Terri. The company's trying to send a message to the rest of the country by bringing the Wannoshay here to work so quickly after they arrived. But hey, what do you care? You're going to be long gone soon, right?"
She's right, I thought. But for now, I had to get home. I stood up too quickly and swayed a little -- cold beer on an empty stomach. Angie walked me to the door and patted me on the back, and my T-shirt stuck to me where her hand had touched me.
She must have seen something on my face, because she said, "Don't worry," and then laughed. "What are they going to do, kill us all and take over the place?"
I wanted to laugh, but my mouth was too dry. I opened the door and walked past the second-shift workers on our line, busy sorting bottles and inspecting labels. Even if the economy was crap, people still wanted to drink beer, probably even more so in times like these. It wasn't until I got outside of the brewery, smelling and tasting stale beer with each step, that I realized I'd taken the long way out, avoiding the refrigeration cellars in some kind of unthinking fear.
I opened my eyes a minute before the alarm. It can't be Monday already, I thought.
Janna stood next to me, her hand clutched to her head. God, not the headaches again. The school nurse claimed it was from the out-of-date prescription of her glasses. When we went down south, we'd be able to buy new glasses. Maybe even get the laser treatments.
"Morning, honey," I said. "You okay?"
"My head hurts." Janna gave me a look that told me she hadn't wanted to admit it.
"It's okay, honey," I said. "Let's get you some extra-strength painkillers and get you off to school, okay? Only two more weeks before summer break, you know."
"Yeah," Janna said, rubbing her temples. She put her glasses back on with a grimace. I'd have to take her to the doctor this weekend. It would be too late to get her into the clinic tonight when I got off at six. I wanted to think of the beach and Janna in her bright red swimsuit next to me in the sand, but all I could think of was what Roberta had said in one of the gossip sessions I'd tried so hard to ignore. "They have snakes for hair, and they eat dirt."
"Mom," Janna said, breaking me out of my daydreams. "Can we go to the Wanta section of town this weekend?" In the kitchen, I put two pieces of bread into the toaster. "Our teachers say they need volunteers to teach the Wantas English. Could we go, do you think?"
"Wannoshay, honey," I said, too harshly. They'd be at the brewery at eight o'clock this morning, ready to start work. "Don't call them that ugly name."
"Okay, okay. So can we go over there sometime?"
I smelled something burning. I snatched the toast out of the toaster. "Go where, honey?"
"Mom! Quit being such a dreamer."
I turned on Janna, dropping pieces of burnt toast on the floor. "No. No, we're not going over to see the aliens. Not this weekend, not ever." I could feel myself starting to yell, but I couldn't stop myself. "Can't you see that we have enough problems right here? Leave the Wantas alone, Janna."
Janna shrugged her shoulder out of my grip. I hadn't realized my hand had been there until that moment. "Call them Wannoshay, Mom. Wanta's an ugly word. You said so yourself."
That first morning, Roberta was early for a change. Her voice echoed through the quiet of the brewery at ten minutes before eight, and I couldn't help but listen to her.
"They all live in the same house and sleep in the same bed. They don't have families like we do. Just a whole bunch of aliens with snakes for hair, all huddled together like rats. I even heard they can have sex with any other Wanta they want, and they think we're childish for having husbands and wives."
"Well, my husband's pretty childish," Ann-Marie said, and everyone laughed but Roberta. I turned away when I saw the flash of pain on her wrinkled face. The first-shift buzzer went off and the line started. Janna's painkillers should have kicked in by now, I hoped.
"Heads up, Terri," Juanita whispered next to me, on her way to her station. She pointed up at the stairway and the steel double doors leading down to our section of the factory. Mark Stevens stood there, sweating through his white dress shirt and holding the door open.
This must be them.
A tall, thin person with what looked like thick dreadlocks walked through the door, swaying his back in a strange, jerky motion with each step. His legs were too short, and his ragged-looking pants were cuffed four or five times. Another person stepped through, then another, all of them built the same way. Before I knew it, a dozen of the thin, gray-skinned aliens stood on the landing next to Mark. Up and down the line, everyone else had stopped to look.
"Dios mio," Juanita whispered, stepping up next to me. Her eyes were wide.
When I glanced back at the doorway, Mark had gotten the parade of Wannoshay moving again. I looked closer at the aliens as they made their way down the steps. None of them wore shoes, and their foreheads each had a vertical slit an inch or two long. At first I thought their oversized rib cages and long backs meant that they were all men, but then I noticed two aliens in the middle of the group with what must have been breasts.
They won't even look at us, I thought.
As I watched, the third Wannoshay in the slow parade began to sway. He looked like a tower blowing in the wind. The muscles in my stomach clenched when his wide shoulders swung violently from side to side, and he began moaning. He dropped to all fours, and I saw scars crisscrossing the backs of both of his big hands.
The aliens on either side of him put their hands on him, one on his back and the other in his quivering hair. A low humming drowned out his moaning. As quickly as it had begun, before Mark had even noticed the disturbance, the stricken Wannoshay was back on his feet and walking toward the cellars as if nothing had happened.
"Dios mio," Juanita whispered again, but this time the wonder in her voice had been replaced with fear and a trace of disgust.
The other aliens hurried past me, but one of the two females walked slower, her dark eyes taking in everything around her. Is she going to try and talk to me? I wondered. Do they even talk? Maybe they used some sort of sign language, or telepathy. I should've paid more attention to the stories on the Netstream.
The rattle of glass on glass brought me back to reality. Bottles had backed up for ten yards on the line. I reached for a bottle, checked the label and the seal -- and it slid out of my sweaty hands. It bounced off the rubber bumpers on the belt and would have smashed to the floor if a gray foot hadn't stopped its fall. It was the female Wannoshay, the one with the curious eyes. She balanced easily on her left foot and stretched her right leg up to me, at chest level, holding the stray bottle. Her toes were wrapped around the neck of the brown bottle like thick fingers.
She was the first one I'd seen up close. Her eyes were totally black. All three of them. The line in the middle of her forehead had parted, becoming a sideways eye that stared at me.
"Thanks," I whispered, my voice high. I could smell a musty odor coming from her, a salty smell stronger than the bitter hops-and-barley odor of the factory.
Her wide mouth moved in a strange way, rippling almost. "'Angks," she said. I felt her voice in my head more than in my ears. It was some sort of telepathy. I shivered, and grabbed at the bottle clumsily. I couldn't seem to get my breath back. Something ugly inside of me made sure I touched only the bottle, not her foot.
With the bottle tight in my grasp, I looked back at the line and saw Roberta, her face puckered with concentration, watching us. When I turned back to the Wannoshay woman, she was gone, leaving only her strange smell of mud and salt.
The E bus was late that night, and the sun hung just below the tall buildings on State Street when I got back to our apartment. I opened the door, and stood there for a moment, the key still in my hand. The place was quiet and hot, and there weren't any lights or fans on. Janna never went to bed this early. I walked inside. The place smelled stale, just like the attic in Mom and Dad's old house.
"Janna," I said, opening the bedroom door and letting it bang against the wall. It was even hotter in here, and the air felt like cotton in my lungs. A lump stuck out of the mattress, covered in the thick woolen blankets we had stored in the closet in March.
"Mommy," Janna's voice peeped out at the head of the bed. "My head hurts, bad. The nurse sent me home." Her voice was thick from crying. My hands curled up into fists against my legs, thinking about her by herself all day in the stuffy apartment.
"Janna, honey, let's get you out from under there," I said. Under the two blankets, the sheet covering her thin body was soaked with sweat. She wore her heavy University of Wisconsin sweatshirt and two pairs of sweatpants, and she was still shivering.
"Mommy, I'm sorry I'm sick," Janna whispered. Closing her eyes, she rested her hot forehead on my shoulder. We were going to have to go to the clinic and pay the after-hours fee. Another week or two of saving down the drain.
"Enough about that," I whispered. I pulled out my money card and called a cab. We struggled down the stairs, Janna leaning on me. She was crying when we reached the lobby. I started talking without really thinking about what I was saying.
"They came to work today, Janna. The Wannoshay. I got to meet one. They're really, really tall, and they don't have hair like you and me." I described the aliens as best as I could, and the words fell out of me faster and faster, like the way the bottles on the line flew past when everything was operating right. Their gray skin, their three black eyes, the way they walked half-hunched over as if they'd prefer to go on all fours like a horse.
The cab came at last, and Janna and I crawled in. It had air conditioning, and it felt cold, wonderfully cold. Like the way jumping into the ocean must feel on a hot day.
"What was her name?" Janna asked, sitting up straight.
"Her name?" I looked at Janna and thought about the alien woman's three eyes staring at me. She had no name, as far as I knew. No name. "Nonami," I said, almost laughing out loud.
"What kind of name is that?" Janna asked.
"An alien name," I said, squeezing her.
The cab stopped in front of the clinic, and the driver swiped my card through his reader with a clicking sound. More money down the drain. But we'd make it out of here yet, I promised myself, sooner or later.
The day everything went to hell, two weeks later, Roberta claimed she'd lost her money card, and she kept saying one of the aliens had taken it.
We'd finally cut back to eight-hour days, but the temperatures outside stayed in the nineties. I saw Nonami every workday during those two weeks, on her way to breaks and at the end of shifts. We never spoke. She was always with the other aliens, and ten more had been hired at the start of this week. Angie told me they could work all day and all night if we wanted them to.
"What are you going to do about this?" Roberta shouted at Angie that day at the end of May. "I need my money, and I know that damn Wanta has my card." Roberta turned toward me. I felt my face burn. "I bet she knows all about this. She's been talking to them."
"Shut up, Roberta," Angie said in her quiet way. "Terri's not a thief."
Things might have blown over then if the aliens hadn't been on their way back down to the cellars after their ten-thirty break. They shuffled past on their short legs, swaying as they walked. They always looked like they were about to fall over.
"Don't you dare look at me, you thief!" Roberta screamed at one of them, her voice cracking. I'd never heard her sound so angry, or scared. The group of Wannoshay hurried past the lines, but the male she had yelled at stopped in front of her, standing up straight. He looked like he was over seven feet tall.
The alien raised his hand toward her, palm out. I think he was only reaching out to Roberta to explain. Or maybe he wanted to silence her, to permanently stop her lips from moving. Even now I don't know for sure.
What I know is this: he touched Roberta, and something changed in her. As if she were a balloon full of anger, and the alien had sucked the bad air out of her with his touch. When he let go of her, Roberta looked at him for a long moment with her face deflated, then she started moaning. It was loud and high-pitched, full of fear, and it lasted close to ten seconds. She didn't sound human. The memory of it still keeps me up at night.
The sound brought the other women on the line running, along with some of the people up in shipping. Roberta was that loud. The Wannoshay male stepped back, even more unsteady than usual, then he suddenly bent down. He touched his hands to the floor like a runner waiting for a starting gun. Both hands had a set of scars, like a strange tic-tac-toe pattern. Each alien had a different design carved into his or her hands, I'd noticed. Like fingerprints.
Staring at the Wannoshay, along with the rest of the humans who stood back from him at a safe distance, I realized that this creature wasn't human. I'd never understand him the way I would another person. The thought scared me, but it also made me feel something else. Sadness, maybe.
After hunching there, quivering, for five seconds, he ran down to the cellar on all fours like a huge dog, and Roberta fell forward onto the line, knocking bottles of beer to the floor and shattering them in tiny explosions, one after the other.
Ten minutes later, the noises began in the refrigeration cellars. I recognized the hissing sounds from when the coolers went off-line a few months ago, but this time there was a banging down there that kept getting louder and louder. Like someone was punching at the walls, trying to get out. Angie hadn't come back yet from taking care of Roberta, and Juanita and the rest of the women on our line were getting scared.
After another ten minutes, the rattling became a booming. Then the cellar doors crashed open and one lone alien male, Roberta's Wannoshay, ran out on all fours, his skin glowing white with frost. His mouth was a perfect circle of agony. Every place his hands and feet touched the floor, he left a crystallized footprint that immediately condensed into a puddle.
Seconds later, the remaining Wannoshay came running up out of the cellars, their hands and feet pounding on the concrete floor. I saw Nonami for a second in the middle of the pack. They sprinted past us, running on all fours, and disappeared up the stairs. Everyone else on the line followed them in a blind panic.
Except me. I heard the blasting sounds in one part of my mind, but in the other part I kept hearing Roberta's moaning. I walked away from the lines, where bottles of beer had started slamming into each other. I had to see what had happened in the cellars.
I walked down the cold, wet steps as if I was in some kind of dream. A smell filled the air, mixing with the familiar smell of barley and smoke. It was the salty smell of the aliens. It was also the smell of blood. The first refrigeration cellar was a square room filled with hissing and churning valves, some of them broken and spewing out coolant. On the floor, three bleeding Wannoshay men lay motionless. The whimpering sound was out of my mouth before I could stop it. I'd never seen a dead person before. Or a dead alien, for that matter.
I felt more than heard the first explosion only two rooms away, my eardrums aching and my sinuses clogging. Maybe this was what the ocean was like when the waves got too rough for swimming. Fist-sized holes covered the metal walls. I was staring at a handful of wires dangling like snakes from one of the holes, spitting sparks, when something touched my back.
"Leave," a voice whispered in my head, loud and clear despite the noise of the malfunctioning equipment around me. I turned my head to see Nonami. "Leave now," her voice said, and she put her other hand on my back.
My entire body jerked into motion, and I almost fell on my way past the three dead aliens sprawled on the floor. Behind us, the other rooms had caught fire. Black smoke filled the air, reaching toward us as we ran up the steps, me on two feet, her on all fours. Behind us, the copper aging tanks in the cellars blew, one after another.
A pair of strong hands reached for me, keeping me on my feet. A vision of Roberta's alien entered my mind, as if Nonami's soothing touch had placed it there, trying to show me where he'd gone wrong in trying to help Roberta. How some people -- like Roberta -- refused to give up their own anger and fear. How his contact with her had driven him mad. Nonami half-carried, half-dragged me through the steel double doors as the explosions behind us continued. I remember seeing the strange scars on the backs of her hands as well. Hers were two straight lines around a curly, spiral design.
As I held on, another vision filled my head, this time of a mountainous, black and gray landscape littered with caves under a too-red sun. The sun burned brighter and brighter with each breath I took, until the landscape fell away beneath me, and I couldn't get any air. I felt like I was flying, blasting off into space from a broken, dying planet. I wanted to cry out at the sight of the planet shrinking below me, but I couldn't inhale. We can never go back, Nonami's voice whispered in my head. Then we were outside and I could breathe again.
I wanted to ask her what it all meant, why that red sun had scared me so much, and what Roberta's anger had done to the alien. But the crowds had already begun chasing the aliens away, and she just disappeared. The brewery went up half a minute later.
Now everything has changed. I don't have a job, the brewery won't be rebuilt for another year or two, and almost all our money is gone. I gave in yesterday and talked to a Netstream reporter about what I'd seen the day of the explosions, and the cash card he gave me in return for the big story gave me the cash to get Janna new lenses for her glasses. I told him enough about that day, but not everything. Nonami's visions I kept to myself.
A week has passed since the explosions, and the aliens have been under constant surveillance ever since. And the police have been calling and stopping by our place at all hours. They want to know what I had to do with what happened.
I'd explain it all to them if I could.
Janna and I have just enough money to get to Mom and Dad's on the bus. They live out in the country, near the Iowa border. It's not near as far south as I'd hoped, but it's a start. I've got the tickets in my pocket, but there's one place I need to visit first. Janna wanted to go with me, but I need to go by myself. I have to force myself to remember what the alien did to Roberta that day, and what he did to the three Wannoshay in the cellars, and how, three blocks away from the rubble of the brewery, they found his body frozen solid. But I also keep thinking about how much less angry Roberta has been since that day. She's become almost human.
So I begin walking the streets of the neighborhood where we lived before we had to move the first time, hoping against hope to find Nonami. Before I start asking her questions, though, I want to thank her. For getting me out of the burning brewery, and for getting me out of Milwaukee and headed south, even if it's not the way I'd planned on things working out. Then -- after I've thanked her, of course, and after she's told me her real name -- we'll talk, woman to woman, about what really happened that day, and what will happen next.
Copyright © 2001 Michael J. Jasper
Michael is completing edits to Autumn's Fall, a horror novel he co-wrote with Greg Vest, and he's also working on a fantasy novel for all ages entitled The Last of the Hand. Look for his story "Natural Order," coming soon to Asimov's. For more about his work, see his Web page. His previous appearance in Strange Horizons was "Crossing the Camp," another story of the Wannoshay.
Martin Gruelle continues nearly a century and a half of family tradition, as a self taught artist/illustrator, creating a world of fascinating fine art, from flowing abstracts to life like portraits, from air brush to oils, to computer rendered illustrations. Martin is currently working with several publishers, creating book covers and illustrating children's books. Visit his Web site for more.