It was wretched goop - Editor
by Jeffery Scott Sims
The invaders came like thieves in the night. No one ever saw them, no one ever knew of them apart from their effects. They showed up the morning following the night of the meteorites, which can’t be a coincidence. They came in something. Things fell to earth around there in the wee hours, and from those something alien hatched. I didn’t actually know it at the time-- I learned most of the sparse details later-- for I was up in the hills on holiday from the big city, enjoying two weeks of fishing and other lazy recreation. I sojourned in the little cabin deep in the woods by the stream up from the mouth of Munds Canyon, I and a couple of friends, Mark and Buddy. A good time was had by all, and then that morning they went into Page Springs for supplies. That was the wrong thing to do, because I never saw them again.
By that evening I was really worried about them, but there wasn’t anything I could do then since they took the jeep. The next morning I fried myself some fish, ate a big biscuit, and set off on foot down the rocky four wheel drive road to town. All that day I saw no one, which wasn’t totally strange, but I’d expected to run across other outdoorsmen, if not my friends. By following Oak Creek I reached the edge of the forest, where it gave over to farmland, before I sacked out again, very tired, confused, and remarkably low in spirits (I say that because I didn’t know anything yet of what was coming). So it was one more morning before I hit the winding paved road of the lowlands and made it to Page Springs.
Here began the heavy-duty weirdness. It looked like they were demolishing the town. As far as I could see, the entire population of able-bodied men, a lot of women, even older children, were engaged in taking apart every structure in sight, right down to the outhouse. By observing a bit more I realized they were building something new, one big, long, rectangular structure, like a warehouse or factory building. They swarmed like perspiring ants over the shell of that edifice, which grew as I watched. Already others were working inside. My view of them was cut off as the walls went up.
I saw more. There were dead bodies in the streets, a few, being haphazardly collected at intervals. Most of the bodies were little children and old folks, and they looked messy. The scene was so freakish that I didn’t think, but blundered way into it before I decided to feel afraid. Then I crouched against a smashed brick wall, my heart hammering, wondering what had happened, what was happening.
I backed out to the edge of town, hiding in the ruins of a torn-down house, until a solitary figure trudged up the road toward me. He was a lean, weather-beaten old fellow who walked erratically, as if in distress, clutching one arm to his chest. I hailed him, he turned, made hesitantly for me. “What gives?” I cried. “Has the world gone nuts?” “Guess so,” he replied. His hand, held tightly to his chest, looked funny, like he was wearing a furry mitten. I begged him to tell me what was going on. He told me, between gasps and groans of pain.
The invaders had come, invisible ones that dropped out of the sky into men’s minds, occupied a corner of their brains, dictated orders. They wanted something done, commanded it done, saw to it that it was done. Those who wouldn’t or couldn’t work died in odd and unpleasant fashions. The surviving folks were being forced to build something, out of the available materials, a kind of manufacturing plant. He didn’t tell me what it was for. Shortly he couldn’t tell me much at all. His hand squirmed, and I saw that it wasn’t covered by a mitten; his hand was a furry thing, an eyeless animal attached to his wrist with a nasty toothy mouth, and it was eating into him. He told me weakly that, unlike most, he’d resisted the sinister spell, so the Invisibles-- that was his word-- willed this creature to his hand, just made it happen like magic. Then the mouth gnawed into a vital spot, blood spurted, the man collapsed. That’s how he met his end.
I believed every word of his story, without reservation. Good Lord, after what I’d seen, why shouldn’t I? Without missing a beat I took off at a trot down the highway to Cornville, intending to flag a car and escape to civilization, if there still was one. I began to have doubts, because an hour passed, yet I never saw a vehicle on the road. That is, I didn’t until I reached a certain point up on those open, wind-swept ridges, where I hiked up a slope and came across half a dozen wrecked cars and pickups all jumbled together. There was human debris mixed among the tangle of steel and fiberglass. I found out why. There was more invisible trickery going on, an unseen barrier laid across the road through which I could not pass. Nor, I gathered, could anything tangible. It affected vision, too, for the view beyond was blurred, misty, meaningless, the sort of distorted view one gets in a fun house mirror. I walked far off the road, still met the barrier. That gave me the shakes. I was five miles out of Page Springs; how far did this murky wall extend?
I hiked it, kept going after the sun went down, just to be sure, and yes, it ran all the way around, a circumference of, I guess, about fifteen or sixteen miles. I was exhausted then, and tired, and hungry. I ate the last of the biscuit, washed down with my canteen. I pondered long before sleep overwhelmed me. As horrible as the situation appeared, one note of feeble hope occurred to me. Whatever had happened here hadn’t happened to the whole world. That couldn’t be, otherwise the aliens wouldn’t require a barrier protecting their lodgement in Page Springs. It might not do me any good, but the real world was still out there.
This meant that, as it was likely to matter to me, the sole enemy was here inside, with me. Whatever must be done would be done here. I determined to do it, or to die trying. Having resolved, I slept, and in the morning walked back to town.
Why had I not been affected by the mind control? I could only take a stab at an explanation, but I figured my saving grace was my previous isolation. Having landed, the Invisibles had gone after everybody they found, and they simply didn’t find me. Mark and Buddy picked a bad time to intrude, right when things were hot, so I presumed they’d been sucked in. Maybe I could blend in, pass for one of the mental slaves, learn a thing or two, find a means of making a difference. It was a slender reed, but better than nothing. I tried it.
I strolled into Page Springs, casually dodged the construction teams, sauntered straight into the giant building and got to work. It was a factory of some kind, containing a series of assembly lines, extremely long wooden tables down which mysterious gizmos were being pushed, and added to as they progressed. I haven’t the foggiest where that stuff came from; it didn’t look cobbled together from local spare parts the way the building did, but rather like material provided from a technologically advanced source. The finished devices, collected at the ends of the tables by teams who carried them away for stacking at the end of the hall, were small machines that could be held in the hand, complicated instruments of convoluted metal casings with wires running all through them. I didn’t know what they were, couldn’t guess anything from their appearance. I would have bet they were weapons. The Invisibles were constructing these, preparing for the day went they sent their slave army out of the barrier.
To be precisely clear, the Invisibles weren’t making anything; their human captives did the work. There were three hundred people in that vast, low-ceilinged room, each doing his minute part, utilizing a mess of common hardware tools to piece these objects together. Those people all looked dirty and weary; some looked sullen, even angry, but they all worked. I joined in, squeezing into line, staking out a space, began to fuss with the gadgets. There must have been a rule I was expected to know and obey, but I didn’t know it and didn’t care to obey, so I did anything that came to mind, sticking a wire here or there as pleased me. I’d be surprised if any of my productions operated properly.
At midday we were fed by human servants pushing trolleys laden with various-sized bowls of wheat porridge. It was wretched goop, but it filled the belly, as far as it went. Then back to work until dusk, when everybody at once, surely in obedience to a silent command, marched out of the factory and dispersed to the rubble of their homes, where they bedded down among the refuse of their lives. I went along with the bunch I’d labored by, which seemed to be the remains of a family and their immediate neighbors. We crouched or sprawled in the dark, with just a half moon to illuminate the pathetic scene.
“You don’t belong here,” said a youngish, sandy-haired fellow. I replied, “Nor do you. Why do you do it?” He said, “I have to obey them.” “Who, the Invisibles?” “Yeah, yeah, that’s right, the Invisibles.” He groaned. “I can’t see them, but they’re there, always talking to me, telling me things. I hate it, but it has to be.”
“And a good thing, too,” cried another, an older guy with a scraggly, graying beard. “It’s right to do what we’re told. I’m happy about it.” They had him lock, stock, and barrel. Curiously enough, despite his happiness he appeared in worse shape than anybody else present. At the time that didn’t mean anything to me.
I turned to the girl beside me, a little bedraggled, but still a pretty girl. “Who do you agree with?” I asked. “It doesn’t matter,” she said hopelessly. “The monsters have got us. There’s nothing we can do about it.” “That remains to be seen,” I said.
I slept, then woke at dawn, half expecting to wake up hypnotized, but I was my normal self. That was great. I woke because those around me were rising in unison, again obeying the silent command. They marched toward the factory, I tagging along. I was desperately hungry, but we received nothing but a swallow of water apiece. Then back to work we went.
Two bizarre deaths taught me a lesson. There was a frowzy woman at the next table over who worked more diligently than most, even humming to herself. An hour before our crummy lunch was served she broke down. It was as if she were all used up, had burnt herself out. She fumbled her application of wiring to machine, then staggered, then shrieked, “No, it isn’t fair, why should it happen to me?” And then she literally fell apart. Bits of her started to come off, until she suddenly unraveled and disintegrated into tiny dusty chunks. She didn’t bleed, she crumbled. So she was dead. There were plenty of sad comments, but everybody kept working. After lunch it happened again, this time to the older man who’d bragged the last night of his happiness. He screamed, begged for mercy, ran around shedding himself until he wasn’t there any more. This told me that, whatever the consequences of disobeying might be, too cheerful obedience was a lot worse, the effects more immediate. I debated how this knowledge might serve the cause.
That night I had a long talk with sandy-haired Charles (“Call me Chuck”) and his pretty sister Marjorie. I ‘d discovered that they were still real people in a sense-- with their personalities and ideas intact-- with the dominance of the Invisibles laid over to a greater or lesser extent. This meant we could converse pretty much as normal. I made use of that fact to get the goods on the situation. “What’s it all about, Chuck? What are they up to?” “They want the Earth for themselves,” he said slowly, like a thoughtful man puzzling out a tricky point. “They don’t have bodies like we do, so they need us for all the grunt work. They jump from planet to planet, making the folks there build what they need, then move on to the next. Now they’re here, and they’re going to do the same to us. They’ll always be hiding, but they’ll be running the show, once they control all of us.” “If that’s the plan,” I mused, “I wonder why they start off hiding in Page Springs.” “Because,” Marjorie cut in eagerly, “there aren’t enough of them to control the world with their brains. They aren’t that strong. They need the machines we’re building for that.” “Isn’t that a joke,” said Chuck. “I’m working all day, no wages, no benefits, to destroy the human race. It’s shameful.” “Now I get it,” I said. “When they have enough machines, down comes the barrier, and their mind control reaches from one end of the globe to the other. After that there won’t be any dealing with them.”
“Isn’t now,” Chuck growled. “It stinks, but we have to work.”
“I sure don’t want to,” said Marjorie, “but that’s how it is. I know it’s ridiculous. I hate them. They killed our little sister Tammy, just because she wasn’t old enough to work. They made something awful grow on her. That’s how life is, though.”
Very earnestly I said to them, “Tomorrow I want both of you to do me a big favor. Each of you, when you’re on the assembly line, do this for me: just once, screw up the job. If you’re told to put wire A in hole B, do it another way, or break the wiring, or stick a pebble inside a case. Do some little thing just for yourselves, because you want to, because you can.”
“I don’t know.” “I’d feel funny about it.” “Somebody might mind.” They gave me all kinds of answers, derived straight from their control, but their emotions fought for me. Both agreed to think about it.
I got results. I took a place across from them on the line, made regular eye contact, dropped suggestions. They would smile, glance at each other, do something wrong like naughty kids. They didn’t exactly break the control, but they played with it, amused themselves, and in so doing accomplished a few acts of vital sabotage.
That night I praised them, joked with them, encouraged them without pushing too far. I was afraid they’d rebel against me if I drove them. Marjorie seemed-- I really believed this-- to take a shine to me. I didn’t mind. I’d done a lot worse in my time. I advised them to spread the word of my cute idea, just for a laugh, if they didn’t mind. Chuck was dubious about the enterprise, but Marjorie found it appealing “as long as it didn’t make for trouble.”
The next day the other shoe dropped. It had to happen sooner or later. I’d been dreading something like this. How long could I wander about without drawing the attention of the invaders? In mid-afternoon I heard the buzzing in my ears, or in my head, a low, insistent drone which rose to a grating whine. I knew right then it was the mental power of the Invisibles. I also noticed, quickly, that everybody in sight sensed it. So it wasn’t me in particular they were after; they were hitting the lot of us. Now why would they do that? I thought of a possibility. It was reinforcement, administered like medicine, bad medicine in this case. If you’re sick the doctor gives a big shot, then recommends a prescription of small doses to keep the first one going strong. That’s what the Invisibles were doing, I concluded, or figured out as the process went on. It might be all the poor folks of Page Springs needed, but would it capture me?
I fought it in my mind, trying to beat it back without being too obvious about it. That sounds strange, but for all I knew the Invisibles could read minds, and I didn’t want to think too loudly, if that’s understandable. I waged the battle of the brain, guerrilla-style. The force was amazingly transparent, only subtle, insidious, doing its best to become a part of me, to rearrange my views in order to corral them and bring them into line. There was nothing harsh or painful about it. It was as if I was considering another set of values, like a friendly conversation on politics or religion. Oh, I see your point-- yes, you’ve got something there-- say, that might be worth a try-- I’ll give anything reasonable a fair shake. Such thoughts swam within me, and they didn’t sound evil or craven. An unprepared victim-- like hundreds of Page Springs folks who awoke to the attack that first morning-- could have fallen for it in a minute. The weak-minded would suck it up and feel righteous about themselves.
I remembered my missing friends. Mark and Buddy were tough, not likely to surrender readily, but they’d walked into the thick of the attack, when the aliens were pouring it on. I’m sure they were killed because they struggled too hard, fought too heroically for their souls. I waged war quietly. I didn’t shout, didn’t argue, didn’t threaten, I simply shrugged and kept moving my hands like a willing worker. I even fitted a few devices properly, proving what a good boy I was. The whine turned into muted but comprehensible whispering, a reptilian voice hissing commands. I kept moving like a non-union employee, eager to get a good job done well.
The voice ceased, the whine returned, gave way to the buzzing, which stopped. I examined all the caves of my brain. So far as I could tell, I was unaffected. My mind was still my own, my purpose unchanged.
The Invisibles weren’t so smart! In fact, they were pretty dumb, so smug and sure of themselves that they didn’t investigate their results. Maybe they couldn’t-- maybe they had to sneak up on their victims to make it work (at least without the machines we were building, a scary thought if the Invisibles ever got loose in the world)-- but whatever the reason, they’d screwed up badly. I was still the spy in their camp, designing schemes for undermining them.
I lost ground with my fellow conspirators, however. That night I found them dangerously obstinate, and guessed I had to just about start over again. I did so, only this time I knew what I was doing.
Here’s the following couple of days in a nutshell. We went about our business, as the Invisibles wished it, trooping to work at dawn in our grimy, stinking clothes, the same we’d worn throughout, unwashed, crusted with perspiration. Water, for drinking only, was carried by slaves from Oak Creek, and little of that. Food dwindled rapidly. Either the Invisibles didn’t care if we starved, or their plans were reaching maturity. Now and then the best and most pitiful workers blew up or fell apart, a taste of human destiny if the Invisibles got their way. We cranked out a ton of those machines, equipment for a small army, as if the aliens counted on swarms of new slaves soon. I brought Chuck and Marjorie around again, added everybody in our sleeping group, set them to passing the word at every opportunity. Each one of us talked to several-- just throwing out ideas, you know, take them for what they’re worth-- and everybody we talked to were encouraged to pass along the message. I relied on the power of mathematics to spread the word: two, four, eight, sixteen, on and on, until everybody heard. Surely it didn’t take with some. I heard arguments, nasty comments, threats to “tell”. I also saw many quiet nods and secretive grins. Rather than making waves, I set in motion ripples that could pile up into a tidal wave when the time was right. In the end the request was always the same: keep playing along, agree to every mental command, don’t fight it or talk back, but disobey it, be subversively creative with the machinery. The Invisibles were clearly counting on that stuff. We must see to it that it let them down.
During those days there were dim flashes of light in the sky, like sheet lightning, and muffled booms from all directions. That had to be the fine warriors of the human race, God bless them, battling to break in to us. Nothing came of it, though. No one came. The alien barrier held firm. We were on our own.
On that last afternoon we received another dose of mental reinforcement. It didn’t affect me at all-- I’d figured it right-- but what really mattered was how it impacted the rest. There were some waverers, more than a few I admit, but with lots of them the relapse wasn’t severe, and didn’t last long. It didn’t take with Marjorie one minute. She stuck to me, collared her brother and straightened him out, and what with one thing or another by that evening we were solidly on course, as if the Invisibles hadn’t tried their dirty tricks again.
I set Zero Hour at nine o’clock in the morning. Everybody who was ever going to matter got the message. I felt a curious, breathless sensation in my head, rather than my chest, an oppressive feeling which told me that our enemies were already on the move, perhaps suspecting something. That couldn’t be helped. Came the moment, and I leaped onto the work table, at the top of my voice declaring a strike. “Stop working,” I thundered. “All of mankind are counting on us. No more fooling. Spit out the Invisibles! Smash the machines!” Every device within reach I stomped or kicked to the floor. Marjorie jumped up with me, grasped my hand, added her voice and her feet to mine. “Death to the Invisibles!” she cried. Chuck echoed that call to battle, his strong voice rolling across the factory floor.
Hesitation, a frightening beat of ghastly silence, then hubbub and frantic commotion as scores of mental slaves threw off the weakened chains of their minds and got into the act. They shouted, bellowed, destroyed. Hammers, screwdrivers, monkey wrenches crashed down upon the horrible machines. Wires snapped, casings split, guts of metal tumbled out. Inside of a minute the entire production system was completely wrecked. The place was a shambles of ruined, bent, crushed metal fragments. The far corner of the factory caught fire, set ablaze by a patriotic arsonist.
The Invisibles struck back. Oh God, it was bad, worse than anything I’d felt yet. They came after our brains with red hot needles of unseen energy. That, I’ll bet, was how it was that first day in Page Springs, and happy I am I wasn’t there then, only had to experience it once. They hit back with fury, a genuine sense of blood-red anger knifing into my mind. Within seconds we learned that our would-be masters were playing for keeps, willing to kill those they couldn’t dominate, maybe lusting to kill. They just about bowled us over with their counter-attack. Strong men fell to the floor crying, I staggered, Marjorie screamed in agony, the real thing-- because it really hurt-- and for a second we were checked. We were also aware, understanding as much as we could, united and fighting mad. We beat back the psychic shock wave.
Then came round two, when it seemed the Invisibles tried to murder as many of us as they could, probably to cow resistance. Here, there, at random, hideous growths sprouted on certain unfortunates, things like parasitic animals that attacked their human hosts. Maybe a dozen went down screaming or moaning. Chuck, to my horror and disgust, was one of these. I’d thought him tougher than that, but I can’t make big statements. I don’t know that it made any difference. It could have been luck of the draw. I don’t think our opponents accepted defeat yet, but I’ll never know that; either they were making examples of a few, or they couldn’t handle us all at the same time. Anyway, a lizard thing grew out of the side of his face, bit into his neck, and that was the sad end of him. Marjorie gushed tears, hot, furious ones. “Death to the Invisibles!” she shrieked, and countless voices maintained the chant. Boots ground on metal parts. Debris was knocked off the tables. Gray smoke clouded the rancid air.
The vast majority of us still lived, healthy, sane, and uncontrolled. Whatever happened to us, victory was almost ours. The Invisibles played their last hand. This is the especially tragic part. There were those among us who had failed to break the control, or who were so eaten up by its power that they hadn’t tried. They didn’t have the numbers to fight us, but they could still serve their masters with their bodies. Now they seized the remaining intact alien devices from the completed stack, held them before them like the monstrous weapons they were, and prepared, as must be the case, to use them to re-enslave their freed fellows. Of course we couldn’t stand up to that, of course we couldn’t reason with the deluded ones-- they were too far gone-- so we did the only thing we could. I was neither the first to realize the dilemma nor to advocate the solution, but I was right in there, bawling soon enough at the top of my lungs for necessary action. “Kill them!” We did it, and I’m sorry, but I don’t know what else we could have done. I pray we didn’t kill anybody on our side by mistake. To pick up a machine, for any reason, was to invite an immediate death sentence. We slaughtered them all; every man or woman who snatched up one of those objects perished, and went fast. It was a messy, bloody brawl, which didn’t stop until the final slave hit the dirt, pummeled and broken.
And with that the battle concluded. I didn’t know it was over yet, though I sensed a sudden lessening of tension in my mind, a lightening of spirits which had been furtively depressed. Looking back on my feelings throughout those days, I believe the energy emanations of the aliens had been affecting me since I’d approached Page Springs, and I’d grown unconsciously accustomed to them. Now I felt joyous, light of heart, springy of mind. Marjorie came to me from the scene of her last fight and wrapped her arms around me. I held her. All over the wrecked complex our people were acting as if they were finally able to take a breath and relax from the nightmare.
Our instincts proved true. We had won. The Invisibles were gone, departed from our minds, vanished from the Earth, as we shortly learned. In another hour an avalanche of military vehicles and troops would charge into Page Springs, so we found out before being told that the barrier was down. Indeed, save for the trampled remnants of alien technology, there was no evidence left, nor ever found, that the invaders had even existed. I supposed it would be that way. It’s fairly certain they didn’t have bodies of their own, so once flung out of ours they had no place to go except Hell. I guess we did that for them.
We were safe, we citizen soldiers, and the world was safe. That’s all. I don’t know any more about those grim days than anybody else, don’t know as I ever will. That’s the whole story of my war against the Invisibles.