Part 1 of 2
Alissa Trang couldn't keep herself away from the Winnipeg slums. She called in sick for her evening shift behind the counter at CanTechWorld once again and hitched a ride up Highway 3 into the city. For the entire ride from Sanford to Winnipeg, she kept her mouth clamped shut to keep from screaming at the old man driving the antique Saab to go faster. Faster. Everything was too slow for her when Ally wasn't using Blur. She would've borrowed her housemate Anita's car, but she didn't trust herself to drive after a visit to Jenae's in the bad part of the city.
Ally nearly leaped out of the car as soon as it stopped at the intersection of Portage and Maryland. She muttered a quick thanks to the elderly driver. Ally had known he didn't want to be caught in this part of the city, but she'd also known he'd take her wherever she wanted if she let her skirt ride up higher on her legs, which were covered in black tights. As the old car sped off, Ally began to power-walk down the empty street. She adjusted the fingernail-sized rectangle of her lapel camera and made sure the recorder in her pocket, connected to the camera, was still running. She smiled, knowing she'd gotten some great footage of the old fart checking her out while he gripped the wheel.
Ally hurried along the streets, keeping her vinyl coat zipped up tight and wishing she had her butterfly knife with her -- one of her housemates had borrowed it last week and lost it. To reassure herself, she touched the handful of explosive caplets of Mace in one coat pocket and checked that she had all five mini-DVDs in her other pocket next to her recorder.
Her coat rustling with each step, Ally hurried down Sargent Avenue and entered the main section of the run-down neighborhood. Boarded-up restaurants and businesses stared at her from below dark apartment windows, empty places that had simply given up in the past few years. Jenae, her Blur dealer and occasional friend, lived above an abandoned bakery at the heart of the neighborhood, and she had told Ally that the aliens were coming to the city to live. Ally forced down her growing impulse to simply sprint like a madwoman down the street to her supplier's home. She calmed herself by thinking about how good it would feel to get a pink capsule of Blur in her, and to take a couple more back home to help get through the next day or two. With some Blur, Ally felt like she could face down a dirt-eating two-meter-tall alien if she had to.
Now that, Ally thought, checking her lapel camera, would make a great flick.
Ever since the priest in Illinois had somehow managed to get inside one of the ships last week, the Netstreams had been going crazy with a new wave of reports about the aliens. Ally, normally content to surf the Netstreams for the latest films to download to her wallscreen or to use them to chat with friends around the world, suddenly was able to slow down long enough to watch the reports. She hadn't paid much attention back in November, when the first ship had landed less than fifteen kilometers north of Sanford. The town had enjoyed celebrity status for a brief time as flocks of 'stream reporters filled the streets and jammed up the roads before the news of the other ships overshadowed Sanford's fame. The reporters had disappeared as fast as they'd arrived, heading south to the American cities or east to the sites in Ontario.
Judging by the broken trees and torn-up earth that Ally had seen at the landing site, the ship that was now hidden under a massive canvas tent hadn't landed so much as dropped to the frozen earth and skidded to a rest a kilometer later. Zipping her jacket tight to her chin, Ally shuddered as she thought about the Netstream reports she'd heard about the aliens. According to the priest and the U.S. operatives who had gone into the ship, the aliens could communicate with humans on a very basic level, using gestures and bits and pieces of English, but they would only talk to someone who was somehow affiliated with spirituality. The aliens supposedly told the priest that they were called Wannoshay, and most people immediately shortened the name to Wantas, though almost all of Ally's customers called them Wannoshits.
Winded after rushing through the strangely deserted neighborhood, Ally stood outside Jenae's closed apartment. Jenae wasn't in. Or at least she wasn't opening her door, something Jenae was prone to do if she was high or if the mood simply struck her not to answer. Ally pounded on the dented, triple-locked door for another minute or two until she heard movement inside. She stopped, not wanting to piss off Jenae's neighbor upstairs. Milt was no one to mess with, especially at night, when he was cooking up Blur and God-only-knew what else in his apartment laboratory.
Ally flicked off her tiny camera and gripped the cold metal of the doorframe, contemplating banging her head on the door until someone answered. The door popped open just as Ally was about to try it. It was Jenae. Without a word she pulled Ally inside. Jenae's usually pale face was flushed red, and Ally counted two facial tics before Jenae closed the door behind them. The thin young woman was shivering as she strode across the floor to the couch, every movement exaggerated and too fast. Jenae was whacked on Blur. Ally fought off a wave of intense jealousy and need.
Taking Blur was like a combination of the best, most addictive aspects of every other drug Ally Trang had ever taken. When Ally was on Blur, the rest of the world turned to so much fuzz while she zipped through the simplest of tasks at warp speed. Even peeling an orange became a race for the most dexterous fingers this side of the Red River.
The only things she didn't like about Blur were coming down from it -- "flashing" -- and the way the world crept in on her while she was sober, pressing down on her with its mundane weight and distracting her to no end. And tonight Jenae had Blur, and as a result, tonight Jenae was Ally's hero. Ally already had her money card out.
"What's new up here?" Ally asked, pocketing a dozen pink capsules, thirty-five dollars apiece. Jenae returned Ally's card to her. There goes most of my paycheck, Ally thought with a wince.
"Cops. We-got-'em-everywhere," Jenae said, her words running into one another as she rocked back and forth on the dirty carpet.
Ally swallowed a pink capsule and grimaced, the drug burning all the way down. "No way. They finally figure out Milt's operation upstairs?" She grinned, already feeling her pulse pick up. Finally. Finally.
"Nah," Jenae said. "Putting-up-a-show. Getting-ready-for-the-Wannoshit-invasion, y'know."
Ally gave a mock-serious nod. "Oh, that's all. I thought we had something serious to worry about. But an invasion -- shit. Nothing to worry 'bout."
They laughed, Jenae louder than Ally, and then Jenae passed out. Her heels rattled on the floor as she trembled and quivered on her back. The first time she'd seen this, Ally had panicked, thinking Jenae was having some kind of seizure, but she now knew better. She looked across the filthy apartment with its broken wallscreen and scarred furniture at Jenae's skinny, trembling body, and waited for the drug to kick in. Jenae was on her own; Ally had just wanted to get her Blur and go out the chilly air of the neighborhood to get some more footage. There was always something good to see around here.
Ally had made only one attempt to film the aliens at the landing site, in December, three months ago, and that had ended in disaster. One of the advantages of working at a satellite outlet for CanTechWorld was that she had access to the best tech a small-town girl could find. Sick of explaining for the thousandth time how to use a Netstream speaker remote to a farmer or a factory worker, Ally decided one night to "borrow" the best eyebrow camera in the store after her late shift. Her plan was to grab as much footage of the landing site as she could the next morning, and get the camera back before her manager knew it was gone.
Always grateful for the chance to get out of tiny Sanford, a town of eight hundred blue-collar and farming families south of Winnipeg, Ally drove off in her beat-up car before the morning had begun. Her car barely made it to the site. She started taking footage of the leveled earth leading to the landing site just outside Winnipeg. As she walked, the camera affixed to her left eyebrow like a third eye taped everything she saw. Recording the broken trees and scarred earth a kilometer from the site, everything bathed in the reddish-orange light of daybreak, Ally marveled at the fact that nobody, human or alien, had died when the ships hit.
Nobody died, she thought, shaking her head, but it was total chaos on Thanksgiving when Armageddon didn't come like the evangelists had been promising. That was shitty enough. Who knows what New Year's will bring?
Fighting the urge to squint, which would have thrown off the camera's focus, she zoomed the camera until she could see the massive tent that hid the wrecked alien ship, along with the six smaller tents surrounding it. After barely five minutes of filming, Ally noticed a dark object moving toward her off in the distance. She blinked into the eyepiece to magnify and saw that the movement was a Canadian Forces jeep aimed at her, bouncing across the frozen earth of what had once been a soybean field. Nobody from the 'streams had been able to get closer than this, and the airspace around all thirty sites had been restricted since the arrival of the ships in November.
"Shit," she whispered. "Shit shit shit."
Keeping her face pointed in the direction of the site, trying to see around the jeep speeding toward her, Ally caught her breath. Zooming the camera lens even further, she saw figures off to the right, walking in front of one of the gray tents. She could see that two of the figures were soldiers, but they were walking on either side of someone quite large. Ally immediately thought of the ancient hoax vids of Sasquatch on the Netstreams and almost laughed out loud, but she kept filming.
The jeep was less than a hundred meters away when she slipped her sunglasses over her eyes, hiding the lens of the camera. She popped out the mini-DVD in her coat pocket and slid the still-warm disc into the back of her jeans. Before she could get in her car, the soldiers stopped her and confiscated four of her mini-DVDs, but they missed the disc hidden in her jeans.
Half an hour (and one capsule of Blur washed down with iced lime vodka) later, Ally fired up her wallscreen to watch her footage. As she surfed through the footage and came across the shot of the tent and the three figures, she realized she held digital gold in her hands. She had managed to pick up a three-second bit of a pair of soldiers marching single file, with a tall, swaying alien between them.
"Oh my God," Ally whispered, grabbing for the remote so she could watch the footage again. "Ohmigod!" Her twitching hand knocked the remote to the floor.
After watching the snippet twice, riding one of the best Blur highs she'd ever felt, Ally had been so frantic to upload her movie to the Netstream that she'd hit the wrong button on her remote. Just like that, her twitchy fingers had burned over that day's footage. And she hadn't taken the time to make a backup. For the next ten minutes, Alissa Trang had screamed herself hoarse.
Ally left Jenae's apartment with her vision tripled. She nearly jumped down the steps and jogged to the next block of the dark, quiet streets, unable to move slowly anymore. Her thoughts started bumping into each other, making her pant for breath at their rapid-fire pace. She felt every muscle in her body twitch as if she'd been hit with tiny bolts of lightning. Ally wondered if she could make it back to her place in Sanford, almost thirty kilometers away, if she started running now. As usual, she hadn't made any plans for getting back home that night.
She paused for breath on a cracked sidewalk on Ellice Avenue. Trying to stand still was a little war raging inside her. Just as she was wondering what had happened to all the traffic, an electric hum filled the air. Ally stood on the sidewalk, her arms shaking like snakes, and held her breath for as long as she dared. The hum grew closer. With a dull gnawing sensation in her stomach, she realized she hadn't seen any traffic on the street all night.
Cops, Ally thought. Something's up.
She moved her right hand to her lapel to activate her camera. Already on, the camera beeped at her twice and kept recording.
As the hum got louder, Ally finally ran and hid in the recessed entrance to an abandoned Thai restaurant. Sweat covered her face and dampened her armpits as she crouched in the darkness, peeking around the corner. The first bus pulled up a second later.
"Oh-shit," Ally whispered. She pulled the recorder from her coat pocket with trembling hands and looked at the readout. The current disc was almost full. She must have accidentally turned the camera on while she was at Jenae's. "Oh-shit-shit-shit."
The hum of the buses had become a high-pitched squeal as first one, then another, and finally a third electric bus pulled to a stop half a block from Ally, who was desperately trying to reload her recorder. None of the buses had windows. When she got the tiny disk reloaded, she touched the sensor on her lapel and wished she'd brought the eyebrow unit from work. The footage from her lapel camera always came out grainy and dark.
Her feet had started tapping on the cold cement outside the restaurant when the doors to the buses opened. Ally's vision was tripling again as she fought the drug in her system, trying to will herself into sobriety, something that always made the Blur high even more intense.
The first to step off the three buses were soldiers armed with rifles, ammo belts crisscrossing their chests. Once she'd gained control of her tapping feet, Ally leaned around the corner wall of the alcove, holding her lapel camera up and out. For the first time she noticed the lights on in the apartments above the closed businesses, and the Open sign glowing in front of the old Howard Johnson's, facts she'd been too busy enjoying the Blur to notice before.
Something salty and moist tickled Ally's nose. At first she thought it was a bug or maybe the whiff of ozone left by the electric buses, but then she realized the smell was different. Alien. It was a scent she couldn't recognize, and it made her skin turn into gooseflesh.
"Oh-my-God," she whispered, even before the first one stepped off the bus, a dark green Army bag held in its big hands. She couldn't see if the creature had fingers or not.
Just a delusion, she thought to herself. Nothing to worry about, really.
Most of the streetlights had been broken out long ago, keeping the aliens mostly hidden in shadows. To Ally, they looked like regular people, but taller and less graceful. Their legs looked too short, making them walk with a strange swaying movement. Ally felt a pang of disappointment at not being able to hallucinate something nastier, or at least something less human in nature. Their skin was dark, but with a bluish tint in the weak light thrown off by the running lights of the bus. Ally found herself staring at their feet. Each bare foot had only four toes. Four toes as long as her fingers. This was no Blur-addled delusion.
I just hope, Alissa thought, hugging herself tightly while recording everything she saw, that I don't fucking erase this one.
She continued filming as the aliens filed off the bus, apparently entire families of them in various sizes, though all of them looked thin and spindly compared to the human soldiers next to them. They walked half hunched over, like a tall person who was trying to look shorter, and they clumped together in small groups. In complete silence, the aliens carried their bags off the bus and were led into the hotel by soldiers.
Her heightened senses picked up movement off to her left. Ducking back into the shadows, Ally peeked through the broken windows of the restaurant. A group of cops were coming up the street on foot. They checked each doorway, and some of them disappeared into abandoned buildings. They were less than a block away.
She was trapped between the soldiers on her right and the cops on her left. Ally packed away her recorder and mini-DVDs into the depths of her vinyl coat, and nearly screamed as a burst of panic-laced adrenaline hit her. The door to the restaurant was locked, but the window next to her was broken, backed up with plywood. Pushing against the plywood, Ally slipped into the restaurant as quietly as she could. She clamped her mouth shut against a scream as she snagged her arms and legs on the shards of glass left in the window frame and dropped, bleeding, to the floor of the restaurant.
A female cop wearing a black leather jacket and faded jeans stopped outside the door to the restaurant a few seconds later, but she left after trying the door and finding it locked. Ally lay back in the dust of the restaurant floor and touched the disks in her pocket.
The aliens have come to town, she thought. And I've got it all recorded right here.
Her arms quivering from the shallow cuts crisscrossing them, her black tights torn and wet with blood, Alissa released the breath she'd been holding in her sore lungs. The sudden burst of adrenaline had killed her Blur high. With a suddenly-heavy hand, she reached up to turn off her lapel camera so she didn't waste more disc space. Then she lost consciousness.
Copyright © 2002 Michael J. Jasper
Author's Note: I'd like to thank Lenora Rose for her excellent details about the city of Winnipeg. Any and all inconsistencies or errors are wholly my fault.
Michael is "this close" to completing work on a novel entitled The Wannoshay Cycle, which is about the aliens in this story. His fiction has also recently appeared in Asimov's, Gothic.Net, Future Orbits, and The Book of More Flesh (upcoming). His previous appearances in Strange Horizons were "Crossing the Camp" and "Explosions," both stories of the Wannoshay. For more about him and his work, see his Web site.