Wires

By T.J. Hardman, Jr.
Illustrated by JHorsley3

Part 2

In the morning, he woke with a terrible headache. He tried to remember what he'd been doing the night before, and could not. He guessed that maybe he had started drinking too much, and had finally had his first blackout. He took a couple of aspirin and headed to the mall to pick up a milkshake and he was sitting there sipping it, when he looked up and noticed Todd standing there staring at him.

"Hey, John. How ya doing?" Todd seemed rather reserved this morning. That was okay; John couldn't have handled his ordinarily effusive manner right now. Even the sound of his voice was making his head pound.

"Maaaan... I have got the worst headache you could imagine."

"I'll bet." Todd was giving him an odd eye. "What was it like?"

"What was what like? Oh. Last night. I dunno, I can't remember a thing. You don't happen to know where I was, do you? Or what I did? I must have been trashed."

"Yeah," said Todd. "I guess you were. Trashed. Shitcanned. I wasn't there."

"So, what ya wanna do? I gotta shake off this headache."

"C'mon," said Todd. "Let's wander."

They wandered. John occasionally thought that Todd might be giving him odd looks, as if estimating him, but he decided it was part of his hangover, and indeed, as the day wore on he saw it less and less. His headache almost went away.

*****

We watched them as it happened to them, and whatever it was that happened behind secret and well-closed doors, whatever it was that took them and changed them, we never saw it. We only saw what had become of them. When did it start? Sometime before I was born, but it never really got bad until the middle of the nineteen-nineties. By then it was obvious, open warfare by one side, and the other side refusing to believe it could happen. This was the mindset in America, at any rate. I cannot say what happened elsewhere, though from the actions of foreigners much might be inferred.

We're pretty sure that it started somewhere else, maybe in Mexico, certainly in remote parts of Asia, and we know that it happened somewhere in the lost vastness of the Rockies. We can't go there anymore but so many of them came from there, we felt it inarguable that this was a major origin of that which came to so change our fellows.

All that we can assume is that aliens landed. This is purely assumption; evidence is conspicuously absent, as if the immediate targets of a tactical and strategic operation were acquisition and compromise of our various planetary intelligence, reporting, communications command and control resources.

The change was far afoot by the time that even the most paranoid of us within the general population noticed it. (We presently assume that all professionals were, through interpenetration of their control systems, almost immediately turned, compromised and eliminated, or simply terminated with ultimate prejudice.) It was simply unbelievable. People came to work one day, and they were Changed, or returned from vacations Changed, or after long absences family members would return. Changed. Capital-C Changed. And when one noticed that one usually noticed also that these changes had been there for some time. The shock of realizing that one has been viewing an anomaly for a long time without noticing. Something pervasive...something that was everywhere and rapidly expanding.

It hasn't gone as far as one might think. The Changed ones were perhaps one tenth of the population in most areas, and as far as we could tell others weren't being changed in those areas. Most of the people seen newly-changed in most places were those recently returned from the Enclaves.

The Enclaves were, simply stated, those places from which persons did not return unChanged. If someone went there, they came back different somehow, with about the memories you'd expect when someone had gone on vacation. Unfortunately, when we had first become suspicious and had organized we had sent several people in for reconnaissance, and they returned with about the memories you'd expect from someone just returned from vacation – even after we had photo surveillance tapes of their captures.

Then the foreigners, all desperate, all traveling light, all with the shell-shocked look of the refugee passed rapidly through all of our cities, pausing to look around them, shuddering and moving on, and after them came more of the Changed.

Then people started coming back from college Changed. From certain colleges (the world's largest university, the University of Maryland, was particularly conspicuous) they came back Changed. From hospitals (especially those staffed by graduates of the University of Maryland, and looking back, even more particularly hospitals staffed by those who had graduated from Georgetown University in the late Sixties [which put a time frame on the initial incursions])- they came back Changed. They came out of jail Changed. They came out of the Army Changed, and all of our hopes for successful resistance disappeared as soon as the military was universally Changed.

We were suddenly homeless in our own land, those of use who escaped, and many, perhaps most of us, very nearly died. In becoming invisible animals in urban wildernesses, we all fell behind the occupation lines as they expanded.

We knew we were in the secured zones because while the Changed still came, those who changed them came after them... and we fled, our organization broken and scattered, each fearing capture, fearing that we might be under scrutiny and unable to seek others out. Some of us did make it to the limits of the true occupation and beyond, into the merely infiltrated zones. Some of us went further, into the rapidly vanishing uninvolved zones. They are now lost to us as those borders have been secured beyond penetration. We have no idea what happens in those last zones. Indeed, so small were those last zones of ultimate refuge that we can only presume that they were destroyed mercilessly as the foci of resistance.

*****

What did come behind those who had been changed? Those who changed them. And what were they? Certainly nothing of this earth. Yet our radars and our telescopes saw nothing (or what they saw was, as a result of the initial compromise of the C3I structures, suppressed) and so we can only assume that they traveled to this earth from another star, though had they this power, they should have been able to force a capitulation, and occupy us directly. Perhaps they came from another universe, a parallel place. There is some apocryphal support for this idea, as the mountains near Denver had long been rumored to have gateways to other realms, rumors also redounding to many other mountain fastnesses, rumors common to many cultures. Certainly, the region's native-Americans had tales which as much as said that there were places not in this world which could be reached through places not only in this world, but nearby.

They, Them, the overlords, the invaders, They shambled slowly behind those who They had Changed. Their property revered them as gods, this much was evident. They oozed down streets like the snails which must have been their ancestors in their own world. They had some sort of metallic artificial endoskeleton to support their viscid flesh, but they flowed upon a single mollusc belly-foot, or rested sessile upon air-cushion-vehicle platforms. Their eyestalks flinched and twined, and their handling tentacles which ringed their faces constantly manipulated devices which we assumed to be communications-and-control consoles. Their world must have been much like our own, for they ate earthly food. In fact, they ate earthers. One which I saw manipulated the console it had hung about its... neck (on a Man, whose shape was so grossly mocked by the shape of the endoskeleton upon which the Master's slimy flesh was loosely hung, this would have been seen as the bloated and twisted neck of an obvious Ogre) and the closest person, a young man, quietly walked over and lay down in the street before The Being, and it oozed over him and enveloped him in its mottled flesh. And when it moved on, there was only a half-digested soupy mess peddled around the fuming remnants of polyester and cotton clothing. The people who were gathered around worshipping their new deity did not change expressions at all, in fact, most seemed so rapt in adoration that perhaps they had never noticed...except for one.

This one was following the being, at the edge of the crowd, and as the people at the edge of the crowd jostled to get closer to the blissful center, he was knocked into the edge of a speed-limit sign which was poorly mounted on a pole festooned with route signs. He took quite a hit, but at first seemed to not notice the blood flowing from a deep scalp cut. But as I watched, he seemed to be waking, waking as if from a dream, tentatively touching the wound, and exploring the edges of the laceration, and he seemed to find something within the wound, and he pulled. Suddenly, a shocked expression passed across his face, and he pulled again. As I drew closer, I saw him seem to wrap something around his finger, like a piece of wire, perhaps, and then he yanked hard, and fell over, stone dead. The stragglers, arriving late to worship, passed him by without remark and I was able to approach him. I unwrapped the wire (actually, it seemed to be a bundle of something like optical fiber, some fine steely wire, and little lumps of some solid substance like pieces of insulation or perhaps microcircuitry) from his finger and I shuddered as I wiped and coiled it and stuck it in the coin pocket of my jeans.

WiresThe Changed paid me no attention whatsoever as I followed them on their way. Whither they led, quiet but jubilant, each pressing to get closer to the focus of their worship, I followed. When I saw that they were approaching the hospital, I began to hang back towards the edge of the crowd, for I saw that while the crowd of the jubilant were pressed in adoration against the fence which restrained them from joining the smaller, more active crowd which bustled in the parking lot on the east side, the crowd in the higher razorwired enclosure universally drew away from the creatures which directed their ex- fellows to seize them.

A prison bus entered the parking lot and shackled men were led forth into the hospital. I watched for hours as they emerged, one at a time, with faces suffused with rapture, from another door to join the crowd. Occasionally, a group of happy slaves would drag someone from the holding pen and escort them, screaming and struggling, into the hospital. Later, they would emerge, their heads shaved in strips and swaths, wearing a smile of beatific bliss... which quickly changed to a more normal expression which better characterized the deepest of levels of inhumanly motivated determination.

I had seen enough. I went back into town, and took a shaver and cut my hair oddly, plastered a smile over my expression of creeping horror, and stole a car, and drove it east. Nobody tried to stop me. I guess that I might have looked satisfactorily-enough possessed – but the demons which drove me were demons, or perhaps angels, of this earth. The stores were abandoned, and I shopped frantically. As I passed the hospital, they were starting to take down the fence. The crowd was gone, and one of the aliens was supervising the loading of a combination trailer. I paused and took some photos with a camera I had picked up, a nice 35mm with a telephoto lens, and then I drove east out of Colorado, driving at a nice safe seventy miles per hour, and then began to take back roads down to Texas.

*****

When outside of the direct influence of the aliens, which is presumed to have been largely through direct electrical stimulation of the brain administered through some sort of radio-controlled electrode-harness, Those Changed seemed to be normal people to all intents and purposes, other than having artificial memories, all of which were exactly the same, if somewhat hazily-generic memories. The memories were of nice stays in a few nice hotels along Colfax Avenue in Aurora, Colorado (actually a generic ex-suburban Hell-on-Earth), accompanied with generic memories related to interesting conversations with attractive strangers in small downtown Denver bars. If you've ever actually been to Denver, you'll immediately recognize this as madness. This memory was universal. We believe that however this false memory is produced (someone has suggested memory-RNA infusions), it carries also instructions. People seem to suffer small but significant changes, mostly in attitude. Things that previously angered them were now tolerated, and other often trivial things would cause them to go into incredible expressions of rage or adoration, desire or abhorrence. They were odd about it though. They did not seem to have any specific plan, but when confronted with some trigger stimulus, they would experience a reaction as to conditioning, and this reaction would guide subsequent activities. Someone might see a toaster in a bank window, and then walk in, and open an account, even if they had to close their other accounts to get that toaster. My company (I am an advertising copywriter) had tried at one time to use subliminal motivation on television ads, and this was the response we had desired, but we simply never hit on the proper technique to achieve such motivational depth and in fact didn't much believe that such success was possible in human beings, let alone such success within the television media. Human beings have this odd little piece of tissue within their heads. It's called a human brain. Usually it has something called Will, on top of all of those other nifty little deterministic mechanisms such as neurochemistry and force of habit and environmental stimuli, and most human beings have it in abundance. Also, most people are contrary. That was the biggest difference between us and The Changed. If they had any will of their own, an ability to rise above conditioning, happenstance, and especially the immediate sensory environment, we've never found it... unless you try to keep them from actualizing their urges. They can get ugly. Everyone who has in literature ever predicted the ultimate consumer, this is it. But who was supplying the motivations? This became much more important as time went by, as the motivations of the changed became ever more strange and obscure.

And when they come back from vacation changed, they come back and change things. They change their banks and they change their shopping habits, buying and selling in incomprehensible patterns and they move. They all move back to the place where they had such nice vacations. And then, some long time later, they come back... changed again.

*****

When they returned from their first changing, the vacation where they were captured, they mostly wanted just to sell everything valuable, buy fairly costly appliances such as computers, and move to Denver. When they returned from their stay in the Rockies, they would buy another house, get a mundane job, avoid anyone they had known before, and mutate.

Most of Those Changed weren't really so much different as they were... plastic. They generally grew, though not much. But their heads changed. It was not so much as a loss of hair, for often where they had been balding before there was a new profusion of hair. But they always displayed new growth of the frontal bone, and other changes in the face, hands and feet. These were symptoms of a growth-hormone disorder... but after we sent a few fellows west on reconnaissance missions, and filmed their captures and watched them come home with stories of nice vacations, so nice that they were selling everything to live there as if they were on a one-way trip to meet God, we started filming them a lot.

After detaining the first two sent who so returned, we decided to let the third, not a local, return into the community for intense observation. Mostly he was who he had been, and he was very confused by the rejection from a few close friends. More like him returned to their own communities, and people watched them there. And as we learned more, more of us got involved. It was hard to not get involved in one way or another. Unfortunately, most of the people who got involved wound up with implanted memories of a wonderful vacation in Aurora, Colorado.

So, having noticed that friends, family, and co-workers were Changed, we watched them like hawks and we saw that they were still changing. They were being rebuilt, the same way one is rebuilt as a teenager. And they were plastic. And that's why we noticed the wires.

Why would a growing bone not under much load deform so intensely? And if you simply looked, you could see them, the wires which ran like an orthodontist's headgear from the front of the face to the back of the head, from the corners of the brows to cross over the top of the skull, hooking over the styloid process. As we watched in elapsed-time horror, some of us watched friend's bones grow over the wires, watched their head assume shapes not before seen on this earth. They weren't really horrible when they were done, they were just, well, we found it hard to think of them as human beings anymore. Some of us lost the ability to see them as human. This was easy to do, for as the frontal bone grew, these people also generally put on a lot of mass, and the frontal-bone growth left them with the heads of gorillas, huge forehead with a low brow, sloping up to a point on the top of the head. Those of us who had watched a lot of National Geographic specials noticed that, to a great degree, they began to act rather like gorillas as well as looking like them.

For all that they remembered all of the same things as did the kids you grew up with, there was nothing much in common with them. They might be nice people, but you had no idea what their goals were... except for one thing.

They really really wanted you to go on vacation. They had the address of the place and everything, and would rhapsodize on the subject of their dream vacation. By now we had figured out that the people behind all of this (little then did we know) had some sort of memory-RNA treatment or something similar that induced false memories and also seemed to pass on conditioning. They were trying to recruit.

Some folks did go on those dream vacations, or at least they tried. By mid-1997, one crossed into Kansas on I-70, and one was captured. All of the states with borders contiguous to Colorado were considered occupied, though there might well have been holdout communities hiding in the woods, or entire towns not under their direct control. The state governments, and certainly the police forces, medical and communications facilities (not to mention food, water and fuel supplies) were under the control of the Changed. Coming from California, you might make it as far as Las Vegas, and to go farther north than San Francisco was to take major risks. For some reason, whatever the beings were which our compatriots had become, they seemed little interested in the hotter, drier parts of the country. They liked snowbound elevations, rainy forested climates, and Denver and Seattle seemed to suit them just fine. They simply, as near as we could tell, hated the Sun. Eventually, they stopped expanding much beyond their Rocky Mountain Empire, and merely Changed anyone who passed through their domain. Those so Changed did their usual thing of moving back to Denver, and then returning, and for the most part, acting normal.

Mostly.