Chapter Eleven: Pulling Up Stakes
Gil awoke on his back with a start. He was surprised to once again find himself on the table of the exam room, and with his present situation flooding back to the forefront of his mind, he immediately pawed around his left side with his hand. He sat up, looked down in disbelief, and his eyes confirmed what his hand had told him: his injury had been healed. A thick and puffy pink worm of scar tissue ran the length of his wound, and though it neither looked nor felt natural, it was undeniably real.
Stroking his face, he had a feeling he hadn’t been out for more than a few hours, but had no way of knowing for sure; his facial hair had outlived its usefulness as a calendar, existing now only as a greasy mess of long and scraggly hair. But as he wiped his mouth, the dried remnants of vomit told him it couldn’t have been long. They had somehow completely healed his new wound in an impossibly short amount of time.
He was grateful to be rid of the searing pain, but also momentarily annoyed by this unexpected display of talent. He thought of his pincushion arm, as well as the puncture wounds the dinner plate had left in his face. There were also, of course, the various bruises dealt to his body by Korben’s severed arm. He wondered resentfully why those wounds had been left to heal naturally, but as he looked around the exam room and saw Kif, he remembered the short alien had been dead for most of his stay. Jeltz was also present, working on something in the center chamber, but Gil doubted that one had anything to do with his care; he concluded it was likely Kif’s expertise that led to his speedy recovery.
Gil swung his legs to the side of the table, shimmied to the edge, and got to his feet. Grimacing as he stood up, he felt the sweat-heavy weight of his clothes and remembered his soreness. Though he felt some benefits of sleeping in a warmer environment on a comparatively soft surface, the ache of a heavy workout lingered in his joints, and the vomiting had caused severe soreness in his chest—deep breaths were painfully difficult, forcing him to get by on short, shallow inhales.
He saw that a glass of water and a fresh plate of cubes lay near him. Hungry as he was, he didn’t think he could bear to eat anymore of the meat now that he knew what it was. He picked up the glass and drank the water, which quenched his thirst and wet his sandpapery throat. He left the plate of food alone.
A thud came from somewhere else in the corridor, followed by the sound of two dull materials sliding against each other. Gil saw Jeltz pushing the clear containers of cattle pieces from the mystery room—no, the labor and delivery room—to the center room, where it would open the lids and tip them over, sending the contents cascading out and clattering onto the floor. The spinning disc had risen again to its eight-foot height, and at the bottom of Jeltz’s growing pile of bones, Roger’s grey feet could be seen sticking out. He found it odd that, given Roger had truly died, they’d still chosen to dispose of it in such an undignified manner.
The last container was the worst to watch: eyes, various organs, and gallons of fluid spilled out and flowed to the dip in the room like a moat around a boney castle. While the pieces were in different stages of decay, Gil was shocked that nothing in the foul stew seemed to be very old—he’d been on the ship for somewhere between eight and nine days, yet the cattle couldn’t have been in those containers for much longer.
How does that work? he wondered. It was strange, having all but verbal confirmation that the devices could merely transfer consciousness—not duplicate it—meaning death was final. Otherwise, Roger would have been able to come back… at least a previous version of himself. I mean… I guess I get the basic premise. They bring a large animal onboard, and then shove one of their embryos into it that’s been infused with… someone else’s… essence? He stared at the short alien for a moment, who looked to be taking an inventory of the odd brain-transference devices. Looks like Kif came back with his memories, mannerisms, and even his physical features intact. He also gestated in less than a week, which is insane, but I have to accept it. What I don’t get is how the cattle got onto the ship in the first place.
And judging by the age of the cattle parts, it looks like they popped out and then wasted no time at all picking me up. Did they lie dormant in those devices during the trip here? Are they ancient? Was that their solution for traveling long distances—digitize yourself and sleep for a thousand years? That’s… incredibly inelegant and wasteful. That would mean effectively killing yourself to enter the device, being birthed when you reached your destination, killing yourself a second time to reenter the device to go back home, and then being birthed yet again when you returned. That’s two physical bodies discarded per round trip, but I guess it’s a workaround for interstellar travel. And then when they get here, there’s the whole miracle of birth and all that, but where’s the caretaker to ensure that everything comes together? Who makes sure the embryos get into the cattle? Autopilot? There has to be some system that turns itself on at some point.
Gil recalled seeing a cheesy video years ago that claimed to be footage of a cow in Argentina being sucked up into a flying saucer in broad daylight. It’d been good for a laugh at the time, and not much else, but maybe that was real too. Maybe the same ship he stood on now flew straight down in the early 1980s to pick up its target without any consideration of what time it was or who might be watching.
He was getting frustrated. There were multiple sections of the puzzle that he’d managed to piece together, but they all sat on his mental coffee table in unorganized clumps. In one completed section, he saw a picture of aliens coming back to Earth after many repeat trips in order to cure an illness they’d somehow contracted. Another section of the puzzle showed a vessel that’d traveled to Earth at speeds comparable to what modern-day astronauts could achieve. With its crew digitized and embryos frozen, the ship could have been launched hundreds or even thousands of years ago, completely powered down with no need to produce heat or provide sustenance. And once they arrived, they never left—the four of them he knew of and the three still dormant in the remaining devices could be responsible for every single abduction claim ever reported in history. He didn’t know what triggered the ship to come to life when it neared Earth, but that was just another part of the puzzle.
A final chunk of the section showed two aliens who seemed experienced—knowledgeable of human anatomy and one who even had good bedside manner. Next to them stood a pompous but completely clueless alien, and towering above all of them was an aggressive hothead, convinced that Gil was a deadly threat to it, its crew, and its species. It had come down on Gil as if the human were a ruthless criminal jovially preying on the helpless.
All of these sections couldn’t quite fit together yet to form a completed picture. Separately, each portion seemed true enough, but the edges of the puzzle pieces just didn’t match up.
Jeltz returned to the corridor and closed all of the sliding glass windows. The clear containers had been returned to the cattle room, cleaned and neatly stacked by the column containing the dwindling supply of alien embryos. Looking back to the center chamber, Gil saw the bottom of the room descend, and then everything was gone in an instant. He hardly noticed, however, lost in thought over the implications of their strange technology.
How many animals had they attempted to use as surrogates before settling on cattle? How many of their own died after jutting from smaller animals like a sheep or a pony, half-baked but bursting from their host with no room to grow? Had a hippopotamus ever been optioned? What if it came time to vacate and they found in horror that they couldn’t break through? Or what if they had, but then realized the meat, as sustenance, was inedible, or too gamey?
And then a new thought crept into Gil’s mind: had a device like that ever been used on a human being? He looked at Kif again, still occupied with its cleanup. What if he wants to jab me with one of those things? I’d wake up later, having been digitized, paired with one of their embryos, and reborn as some sort of freak.
He asked himself if that was exactly what the not-quite-human creatures were in those most famous abduction tales, like that guy from Brazil who’d been asked to have sex with the naked, almost-but-not-quite woman aboard their ship: honest-to-goodness human beings forever trapped in a hybrid body. What if all the tales of human pregnancies being stolen aboard flying saucers were attempts to return past abductees to their former selves?
Would a hybrid appear more human, or more alien? Gil thought if he were to wake up and discover he’d been morphed into some bizarre, black-eyed creature, he wouldn’t give them the chance to try and change him back; he’d make a beeline for the door in the exit chamber, slide it open, and just suck them all out into space to suffocate and die.
He was startled from his thoughts when Kif approached him from behind and lightly gripped his right wrist. Gil weakly pulled his arm away from the cool and clammy grip, and glanced distrustfully at the alien before his vision blurred. He’d been crying, lost in thought about his captors and their barbaric tech. He wiped away the tears.
He considered asking Kif what it wanted, but knew there wouldn’t be much of a point. Instead, he simply raised his eyebrows questioningly. The alien gestured with its head down the corridor at the cockpit, and started walking. Gil reluctantly followed.
Jeltz had completely finished cleaning out the strange room and stood waiting in the cockpit. It stared at Kif and Gil as they approached, and to its side sat Korben in the seat closest to the two approaching. Its eyes were open, staring blankly like a movie prop at the shuttered cockpit windows.
Kif, arms holding all seven of the strange devices, made its way to the center chair and began moving its free hand over the control board. Nimble fingers danced across the surface, pressing buttons and flipping switches until a flat panel moved to the side and revealed a recessed row of ten small holes. The sight had become familiar to Gil, illuminated holes just big enough to accept the spiked end of their strange devices. Kif plugged the devices it held into the recessed panel of outlets, one by one, until all seven were out of its arms. The three green-lit devices were inserted fully and turn-locked, while the inactive four were merely set inside similar to how a pencil rests in a pencil cup. One of these inactive devices was then connected to a small cable that ran to another section of the control board.
From his peripheral vision, Gil saw Kif turn to face him. But his gaze had been locked on the back of Korben’s grey head, sticking over the back of the chair like a round lump of uncooked pizza dough. He could hear his own heart beating in his chest as he looked at it, the ambient noise of the ship fading away to dull fuzz, and wondered how the featureless mound could be so menacing. He stared as one would stare at a movie screen, waiting for some popcorn-spilling jump scare to send him running. Gil wanted so badly to grab one of those devices and stab the spike through the top of that skull; to lock Korben away forever like a spirit in a ghost trap.
He looked up at Kif, who had waited patiently for his attention.
With its eyes locked on Gil, Kif reached around and pushed a sliding knob. The cockpit window opened up, and Gil turned his head to the left to see out. His knees buckled, and he nearly fainted at the sight out the window. Gil knew instantly what he was looking at. It was Earth—bright, and big, and blue, and beautiful. It filled the entire length of the window—they were close. Fresh tears erupted, and Gil was confident it was finally time for him to go home.
Assured that Gil had gotten the right idea, Kif turned back to the control board. Now both of its hands worked, flipping switches and pressing buttons until Gil heard a small motor whirring from behind him. Jeltz turned around to look into the center chamber, and Gil followed suit. The metal chandelier in the center of the ship moved down, pushed by two extending poles attached to the circular structure’s perimeter. Curiosity drove Gil to wander closer, into the center room and just inches away from the orange disc and its hanging counterpart. Above the chandelier, Gil saw a wide cone of round speakers which had previously been tucked away in the ceiling. After the poles had brought the chandelier down about three feet, they slowly turned the strange apparatus upside down and ascended back to the ceiling—now the cone of speakers pointed downwards, while the stalactites morphed into stalagmites and disappeared into the hull of the ship. It rose so high that even the speakers were partially recessed into the ceiling, meaning the stalagmites were now poking out of the top of the ship like a mess of antennae.
After a confusing moment, Gil brought his hands to his head and covered his ears in a panic to shield them from the abrupt and loud cacophony of noise that erupted from the speakers. A mix of radio static and what sounded like Morse code blared so loudly that Gil didn’t think he’d be able to hear himself scream. He turned and ran for the cockpit. The sound faded out and then stopped completely as he reached the three aliens.
“What the hell was that?” he shouted. He looked down at the row of devices, and saw that only two of their lights remained illuminated. “What the…”
Kif pressed the single button on another of the two active devices, which triggered a second wave of ear-piercingly loud static and beeps. And then only a single light shone from the row of seven devices. As Gil recovered from this new audio assault, Kif pressed the button of the last device, triggering a third and final blast of sound. Across the entire row of devices, none of their lights remained on.
“What just happened?” Gil asked. He gestured his head towards the devices. “Your buddies just went dark. Did you—are they gone?” Of course, he received no response. Instead, Kif simply motioned him closer.
Kif guided him to the chair closest to Korben, and had him sit down. The alien buckled him in the seat, and then took its own seat in the center chair. Jeltz buckled up in the chair to Kif’s right.
Gil, safely strapped in, first looked to Kif on his right, and then to his left. Korben, not even two feet away from Gil, stared at him intensely. His eyes were locked with the alien’s for a painful moment, and then he forced his gaze ahead of himself at the vision of Earth through the window. He could still feel Korben’s eyes on him—an uncomfortable warmth that made him shiver.
As the ship approached Earth, all four of them began to shake wildly in their seats. The turbulence was intense. The window turned bright orange as flames licked the hull of the ship, and the heat caused beads of sweat to appear and run from Gil’s forehead down to his eyes. He wished he could shield his ears from the sound—the awful thunder fell on him as though he stood at the base of a waterfall. He could hear himself screaming, so it was at least more manageable than the strange radio static from before.
In between breaths, he heard the distinct and quick sound of fabric being torn. It came from his left. He whipped his head around—Korben’s stare be damned—and swore that he’d seen the giant’s right arm move. Gil’s eyes went wild, darting back and forth between the tall alien’s hand, its eyes, the straps, and everything else to his left. He began to scream, and looked back to his right.
“I think something just happened!” he screamed desperately. “I think I heard him break his seatbelt or something! Hey!” Kif didn’t turn its head to face him, possibly under the assumption that Gil was merely frightened by the turbulence. He looked forward again, terrified but unsure what he could do. If he heard right, if he really did hear Korben tearing its straps, it meant the behemoth cleverly waited for something loud enough to drown out the sound of his escape. And with Gil now strapped to his seat like someone in an electric chair, Korben could dispose of him before the others could possibly have a chance to react.
But nothing happened. They successfully reentered Earth’s atmosphere, and the ship returned to its quiet operation. They had at first flown in at such an angle as to run face first into the ground, but the ship leveled out a couple hundred feet in the air and then seemed to hover in place. It was daytime. Gil had seen them close in on California, and hoped the ship had targeted a location somewhere near his home. The last thing he saw before the ship turned upwards was a meadow. Then it was just blue skies.
Kif and Jeltz got up from their seats, and then unstrapped Gil. He got up as well, and then quickly backed up into the corridor—he couldn’t wait to put some distance between Korben and himself.
“Watch out for that one,” he said, pointing to Korben. “Look, I don’t know exactly what happened, but I heard something—something like torn fabric. I think he tore his seatbelt off or something. He might try and come after me again.”
Kif and Jeltz just stared blankly.
He pointed emphatically at Korben. “Come on, don’t you get it? He’s faking it—I don’t think he’s tied up anymore!” Gil looked optimistically at Kif, who seemed to have just had an epiphany. Kif pointed at Jeltz, and then up into the sky. Then it pointed to Korben, and again, up into the sky. It pointed at Gil, then down towards Earth, and finally pointed at itself before pointing up into the sky one last time. The optimism drained from Gil’s face. “I don’t… what—what are you trying to say?”
Kif turned around, grabbed one of the four devices which were not locked into the row of holes, and faced Jeltz. Jeltz, who stood behind the chairs in the clearing of the room near the corridor, looked at Gil, narrowed its eyes, and give him a single nod. A puzzled Gil shrugged and said nothing. Looking back at Kif, Jeltz took a deep breath, closed its eyes, brought its arms to its side, and put its chin up. The alien looked proudly expectant, as if preparing to receive an award.
Instead, Kif took the device and cracked the sharp end into Jeltz’s forehead, pressing the single button and beginning the transfer process. Gil found this uncomfortable to watch, and it was just as jarring as Kif’s transition, but he felt he had a grip on why it was being done—discarding their physical bodies to lie dormant as a collection of computer files, either to wait until the next time a visit to Earth was required, or for the long trek back home.
Gil’s half-baked understanding quickly evolved, however, as Kif withdrew the device. Jeltz predictably fell over, first knocking its knees against the metal, then collapsing sideways with its head pointing into the corridor. Kif quickly wiped the guts from the green-lit device with its free hand, then plugged and locked it back into the control board. A second later, its thumb pressed the single button and triggered yet another series of static and tones. The device was now dark and inactive.
“Where’d he go?” Gil asked. And to his surprise, Kif actually answered by simply pointing a long finger up towards the ceiling. “Up?” he started, then trailed off, suddenly completing another section of his mental puzzle. Jeltz was gone—not dead, but away from the ship.
The alien had briefly been stored within the device, but now existed somewhere else—somewhere outside, broken down into kilobytes and shot out in the form of radio waves. And somewhere, something must have been set up to receive the transmission. They had both looked so comfortable with the process. Dozens, maybe even hundreds of them had used the method as an interstellar light speed highway to visit the ship, study Earth, and fly back home.
“You sent him away, didn’t you?” Gil asked softly.
Kif struggled a little bit to hoist Jeltz up, but got the corpse into its arms and staggered to the exam room. It laid Jeltz on the shelf of the wide oven, slid the doors shut, and pressed some buttons that got the heat going. Of course, Gil thought, they can’t just spit the bodies out when we’re a couple hundred feet in the air over Earth. Flames had come to life and began to eat into the corpse, and the smell of the flesh forced Gil to run out of the room—it was unbearable. He turned back when he reached the chairs of the cockpit and saw that, despite their dulled senses, even Kif wore a slight grimace. At the entrance leading into the center room, Kif executed a number of swiping gestures on a phantom touchscreen that shut the door leading to the exam room. The stench was now greatly reduced, but Gil no longer wondered why they favored shooting their kin out into space.
The short alien grabbed another of the inactive devices and approached the restrained Korben. Gil was still nervous about what he was sure he’d heard during the reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, but the feeling was dwarfed by his overwhelming relief that the tall one would finally be gone.
“Do it!” Gil demanded. “Don’t waste any time, just get him out of here and be done with it.”
Kif walked in front of the leftmost chair where Korben sat, and made eye contact with the tall alien. After a short period of silence, Kif offered one of its familiar nods and lifted the device. The suspense was killing Gil, who tried to be patient and failed.
“Just do it, goddammit!” he spat, and then started towards Kif as if to guide the device to Korben’s forehead. Kif finally swung its arm down, but a large and strong hand suddenly rose up and gripped the short alien’s forearm. Gil let out a high-pitched, “No!” as Korben used its left hand—fully formed at last—to wrestle the device free, flip it around, and drive the tip harshly into the right side of Kif’s skull. For the second time since Gil came aboard, Kif convulsed and shed its physical body, falling limply on top of the seated Korben. The giant ripped the device out, pushed the corpse off of itself, and as the body slapped against the floor, Korben worked to release its various straps.
With a dozen straps and buckles now dangling from its seat, Korben rose up, anchored the device, and sent Kif away into space. Now, only it and Gil remained—nothing would stand in Korben’s way.
It whirled around triumphantly, ready to choke the life out of the human, but its furious eyes quickly reshaped into an expression of shock; Gil was nowhere in sight.