As I left the shower, I nearly bumped into my brother Robert; he was still carrying the newspaper that was a day old which said Snakes Conquer West Coast in Helvetica on its front page. I had wanted to forget about it, though I supposed that it did not matter how long of a shower I took, I would still have to come back to the real world.
Dad was sitting at the table, and he scraped mud off his workboots with a pocketknife. It had been raining a lot recently, and Dad needed something to do since his workplace put production on hold, so he just did yardwork in the mud every day. Mom was cooking something on the stove, it smelled like oregano, which was the only spice left in the cabinet, besides cream of tartar which didn't really count as a spice.
It sounded like thunder outside, as usual, but today there was not a cloud in the sky.
"Are we going to be having pizza tonight?" Robert asked Mom as he came out of the bathroom. We had pizza every Thursday night for at least a few years, family tradition.
Mom nodded. "We have a few down in the freezer." The awful kind that probably wasn't made with real tomatoes and had the consistency of stale cardboard. The freezer was thankfully being depleted, and maybe we'd starve to death in another week if we were lucky.
Robert swore and slammed the paper down on the table. "Why don't you ever make homemade pizza anymore?!"
Dad and Robert quickly got into a shouting match. I attempted to retreat to my room when there was a heavy knock at the door.
"I'll get it," Robert said, and he slammed the paper on the table as he got up. We watched. Robert pulled away the curtain over the side window and looked outside. His color drained so quickly I could have sworn his clothes lost some of their color too.
"Dad," he said, as he met the gaze of the visitor, "It's for you."
Dad rose and eyed Robert's expression while bearing a dumb look of his own. He opened the front door. Nobody was there. But several yards down the driveway a huge gray body shifted around. Nothing prepared me to see them with my own eyes.
Dad slammed the door shut. In his hand was an irregularly shaped sheet of paper.
"I-I can't let them do this," he said, "They couldn't. They can't do this."
"What is it?" Mom asked.
Dad laid the paper down on the table. I leaned forward, not daring to touch the paper as though it were covered in a deadly virus.
To the occupants
All residents within "Right Circle" sector have been selected for study by order of Lord Kessta. Residents of this building, numbered 1445, are to prepare room for their visitor who will be staying indefinitely. You will not be asked of anything more at this time. Please cooperate and no harm will come to you.
"They-they have no right," Dad said, "They can't do this to us!"
"Dad," Robert said, still pale, "Not . . . not to make a fuss or anything, but . . . what are we going to do about it?"
The snakes arrived. I avoided looking at them directly. From the bay window in my bedroom I saw enough as they passed through the backyard. They were as huge, as they were on TV, but it felt different in reality, now that they were here, near me. I didn't look at them but I could picture them in my head—their huge silvery bodies with the muscles in their arms and chest folding over each other in a bizarre way underneath the skin, and the strange way they propelled themselves over the ground with their thick tails—like a naga out of Indian legend.
Dad's shouting was louder than their tools. I didn't know they were modifying part of the house until Dad mentioned it as he passed my room on his way to the attic. The snakes selected the study as their room. It was in the corner of the house, at the end of the hallway from the kitchen, and was over solid ground instead of the cellar.
I didn't know what my dad was getting from the attic, but I prayed to God that he wouldn't do anything stupid.
I built up the courage to take a full glance out my bay window at the corner of the house. There was a large metallic door there, with a ramp leading upward. It was closed, and the snakes were gone. I slumped back onto my bed before they came back.
The house was silent.
Robert brought me some semi-stale corn chips and told me I needed to eat something, and that was the only thing we had left in the pantry that wasn't in a can.
"What's it look like?" I asked.
"The room, I mean. That the snakes took."
"I didn't look at it. Well, I did look from the outside. They put a huge bay door on it, like something outta Star Wars. It was large enough for them to wal . . . slither through."
"Dad didn't sound too happy."
"He didn't do anything."
I sat up. "What?"
"He just yelled. Stood about ten feet away from the study door. Or he yelled from the back door to the porch. Anytime one of them glanced up, he backed away and shut up for several minutes."
"Well, what did you do?"
"What do you expect? I don't have a gun, and even if I did I'm not stupid enough to start shooting. So I just took a seat on the back porch and watched them."
My mouth hung open for a moment. "You what?"
"Well I don't know! Yes they're big and frightening, but it's almost like watching . . . very unusual wildlife. It was scary, but they don't attack people out of the blue. I don't think so, anyway." Robert pulled an irregularly shaped piece of paper from his pocket. "When they were putting away their tools, one of them slid up to the porch, looked at me through the mosquito screen, and slid this under the door."
I took the paper and looked at it. We apologize for the inconvenience, it said, in that odd half-serifed font.
"I'll get you something for dinner," Robert said as he got up, "you can stay in here if you want. I wouldn't blame you."
We first heard about the snakes on the local news two weeks ago. This huge . . . "spaceship" landed in hick country in southern Missouri. But it looked more like a misshapen office building, with its corners ground down and polished. It hovered unnaturally thirty feet off the ground.
The media called them snakes because that's what they looked like, to an extent. Underneath their spaceship, they slithered about on a long, thick tail that extended from their waists, but above that was strange, though man-like. They towered over the country boys that were filming them, making them seem even taller as they passed by, the camera panned straight up to see their faces, since their upright body was two and a half times as tall as a man. Their reptilian faces were covered in shadow from the broad hoods that covered them like a cobra. Without exception their bodies were Olympian, even to the point you might imagine a god having a supernatural silvery glow. None of them wore clothing save for their belts and bandoliers, and not one of them looked feminine. Their hands were huge—yes they had hands, with which to manipulate their tools. Or the camera that one calmly took from the country boy, inspected, and returned without even a word.
The politicians spoke of peace talks, at least after it was proven these beasts were not a hoax. We would try and communicate with these aliens, lest they vaporize us with their ray guns and space cannons. Of course they had ray guns and space cannons, they're aliens.
The snakes wouldn't accept any kind of diplomacy in an open forum, on high podiums built for special occasions, or in secluded offices in undisclosed locations. The diplomats, along with an enormous entourage of military personnel, had to seek out and find the snakes, ultimately in a large cluster in the middle of Idaho—the snakes tended not to land near cities, yet the government liked to evacuate places nearby their landing sites, just in case. They were far from the roads, and the cameras had to be brought in on foot, ATVs and jeeps. The president stood there, smiling, with a few linguistics professors behind him. The snakes were calm, or at least they didn't speak up. They let the humans set up some tables right there in the grassy field, so we'd have some semblance of normality when we saw that it wasn't weird at all—this was very much a normal, boring diplomatic meeting. Some people changed the channels. They missed the part where one of the snakes leaned over, whispered something to another, then drew his ray gun and zapped the president.
One by one, every single diplomat there was devoured in a flash of light. All the military personnel there were quickly done away with too, except for the ones who dropped their guns and either surrendered or ran. The news station was unsure whether to cut away from the footage. At least one, the one I was watching, put up a 'Please Stand By' card, so I changed the channel.
After that, it was war. But the snakes weren't just bulletproof, they were impervious to all the weapons and tactics we could dredge up. I heard that nuclear weapons were set off in some parts of the world. It wouldn't have mattered anyway; there was never a confirmed kill of a snake with positive proof, no matter how much other nations kept claiming their tactics were effective.
I, like everyone else, had been thinking about the snakes for two weeks straight. I wondered if people became burned out on events. Maybe that's what television did to the Vietnam War—people weren't protesting the atrocity of a war with no goal, they were just bored and wanted something else to watch.
I'd seen nothing, save for the occasional fighter jets passing over the neighborhood. There were no explosions, no nearby carpet bombings sending us scrambling to the basement and shivering in fear during a blackout. Although a number of stores quickly closed once there was news of the snakes moving into our area, I saw nothing, and since the supermarket was still open, though severely depleted of goods, I missed little of life as I knew it.
Their guns looked like big boxy radar guns. The news liked to broadcast every video that was ever captured of them shooting those guns, many times in a fabulous and inappropriately designed montage. I didn't know how the guns worked, so I imagined heat so great it dissolved the body into a fine ash within a flicker of light. But it never left behind burn marks, so I didn't know what to make of it.
Many people stopped going to work and school. It raised the level of panic among those that were left, wondering if those who vanished boarded themselves up in their own homes, or if they were snatched away in some vicious alien plot.
And we were also boarded up in our home after two weeks of floundering about the decision. Not because we chose to do so—'we' being me and my brother Robert. Robert was two years older than me and, technically, able to leave home whenever he felt. He had a car, a sizable bank account, and a high school diploma. It was his opinion that nobody needed anything other than these to "begin the American Dream." The first phase was surrendering yourself to the open road and seeing where you ended up, or at least where your car broke down. But Robert was still here, often secluding himself in his room, scribbling things down in his notebooks, getting into arguments with my dad, insisting that he's ready to strike out on his own without needing college.
I reminded myself to ask Mom if school was closed or if she was just keeping us from leaving the house.
I wouldn't have been surprised if school was closed. At least half the student body left the day it began. I think some of the older kids tried to join the military and plain dropped out. I was jealous of them. Every class had since ceased all pretenses of staying on topic, except for History. Even then, Mr. Wolfgang decided to skip ahead in the schedule, to the unit on World War II. He wasn't a very subtle person.
The only good thing about school the last days I was there had been Philip. He made some promises. His friend Ben found a secret bunker somewhere in town.
"I even have the original blueprints that Ben found in there," Phil had said. We were both sitting in his bedroom, secretly, because his mother was just short of clinically insane and it was for the best that she didn't know about my presence. Phil pulled out several large sheets of blue paper from a desk drawer. "Right here. It's big enough for all four of us. The place is still chock full of C-rations—I'm pretty sure those last forever. If not, close enough." All four of us also included Ben's girlfriend, Krystal. I wasn't looking forward to spending the next ten or more years in the same 40 x 40 foot room as her.
"I don't know," I said. "I mean it's a nice idea and all, but it's like we're not taking this seriously. Like we're kids playing in a tree fort while there's a real war going on somewhere else."
"Come on, Jenna, this would have been an ideal setup in other wars, you know." He placed the paper to the side. "We have the warning now. We need to get ready fast."
"But we don't know if it'll even matter," I shook my head, "I keep hearing reports about them on the news, that they're invincible. The one body they found of them? Died because of an accident. We've never found one we were able to kill on our own."
"Nobody's invincible," he said, "They'll find something any day now, and they'll have to leave, because nothing can break us apart. Haven't the good guys always come through when it mattered the most? We just need to stay strong."
That was Saturday. Ben stalled, and stopped showing up at school. Phil received notes through him, he wouldn't tell me how, (I wasn't sure if he knew) and he passed those on to me. Yesterday, Phil gave me a different note. Meet me tomorrow after class; I have something I want to show you. —Philip. Ben might have finally been ready. I assumed Phil was still in school because of his mother, who honestly didn't think anything was wrong with the world outside. I needed to call Phil when school was over. If it was still there.
Some time later, I could hear the faint, heavy shuffling downstairs. It made me shudder, and for a few moments I was terrified by the prospect of an invader in this house, who was so inhuman it didn't even walk on legs. I started dreaming up other horrific figments in my mind, some from stories I'd read or shows I watched on TV, and they never seemed scary until now.
I had a black-and-white set in my room. I needed something to drown out the creaking noises that took over the shuffling, so I turned it on.
"This just in," the local newsman said. He'd said it so much for the past two weeks it was now his catch phrase. "There have been reports that a scientist in Maine has discovered a poison that affects the aliens. Plans and chemical formulas were distributed over the internet, as many have reported, but as of four o'clock yesterday morning all traces of those formulas had disappeared. Even attempts at trading screen captured images, different file types, and even mislabeled and encrypted files of the poison have been impossible. Reports say some underground printer is trying to distribute copies of this formula on paper fliers. The scientist who invented the formula has likewise vanished."
The camera changed angles and he continued. "On the east coast today, rumors abound that military officials in New York, Miami and other large cities have struck deals with the aliens to use ground forces to break up local militias—"
I turned it off and laid there on my bed. The creaking has been replaced with something a lot quieter. Faint, aberrant tapping. Like using a computer.
When I remembered to look, the clock read 4:14. I grabbed my cell phone and dialed.
"Jenna!" Hearing Phil's voice was like a hot bath in the middle of winter.
"Phil, I'm so glad you're there . . . "
"I was worried, what happened to you?"
"They're here, Phil. The snakes are in my house."
"Mine too. I can see them. They're bringing in stuff all over town. Just . . . stuff. All sorts of things. I couldn't begin to tell you what they're doing though."
We were silent for a while. My heart was pounding. I was so numb from wanting to cry all day, I barely noticed it when I finally did.
"I still have something to show you. Ben's been helping me with it. Or you know, the other way around."
"What is it, Phil? Is it the—the place?" I didn't know if the snakes were listening to my call or what—I didn't even know if they did that—but I needed to remain as vague as possible, just in case.
"Close," Phil answered.
We were silent for a while longer.
"Is that it?" I asked.
"Yeah. If we don't see each other before then, we meet Saturday. At the place."
An hour later, Robert brought me dinner. He took a hot plate into his room and heated some soup, said he didn't feel comfortable staying in the kitchen because it was so close to the study. I asked where Mom and Dad went. Robert shook his head. "They haven't come out of the basement." Their room was next to the study.
Robert went back to his room. I laid on my bed. I didn't turn out the light, even after the sun went down. Those typing noises ground on my ears. It nearly threw up just listening.
Sunday evening popped into my head. There was an image of our preacher, standing behind his lectern and shouting at the top of his lungs. He looked like he was just as afraid as the rest of us. Trying to throw out verses that would give us some context. Any kind of context.
"And the Lord God said unto the serpent, 'Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life. And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.'"
That was one I remembered. I was sure it had nothing to do with alien invasions. He spoke about how our war now was merely the bruising of our heel. He made some parallels to Revelation, with the dragon who swept the stars from the sky. That was marginally more plausible.
After the sermon we sang "Power In The Blood". I sang the words from memory. I wasn't prepared to think about what God thought about the snakes, or what He would want me to do about them. God never covered this in the Bible, even with all these vague allusions the preacher could make. Maybe the preacher had some insight I didn't.
Even if I did, I would wish I'd forgotten it.
The noise was unbearable. I laid on my bed, stared at the ceiling, and made out patterns in the rough texture. I bit my lip, trying to concentrate on what was clearly a dog staring at a man, but I blinked and it changed. I was seeing shapes I did not want to see. I pushed it from my mind.
I traveled many paths of fear and worry in my mad escape from the sounds that came from our guest's room. My body twitched, each time with increasing discomfort. Time fell away from me. The shapes in the ceiling became stranger.
The clock read 10:14 when I reached an epiphany. Somewhere deep in my addled mind I was anxious—curious, even—to know what the snakes were.
This realization set off a whole new chain reaction of nervous twists inside my stomach and along my spine. I had seen them—I saw the way they moved, how they interacted. They were smarter than us, or at least had more collective knowledge. So why were they so different? Because we were subject to them?
They might change their mind at any time. They might decide humans are undesirable to have on the planet any longer and wipe us away, though I wasn't sure why they would do it or what it would entail. But they could, easily. That they had not done so already meant that it was different than I had been led to think.
My feet touched the carpet, and I gasped. My innards sprung up and mangled themselves inside my body, but I held steady. It must have been the adrenaline. I had not been held awake by sheer anxiety for so long I'd forgotten how awake I could feel in the middle of the night.
And then I was walking down the hallway. One of those enormous beasts was under this roof, and if I was ever going to find out what they really were, I wasn't going to do it by sitting and listening to secondhand accounts or fearful assumptions any longer. I wanted no part of that. I wanted to find out for myself.
As I approached, a mild odor emanated from the room, a detail that I had not considered up until now, but which made sense. It was weird but not unpleasant, sort of like bitter root beer. And then I was at the doorway. I stopped. I was frozen in my tracks from seeing the alien in his adapted habitat.
Their structure was . . . almost human. The cheekbones, or their equivalent, lifted the face upward. The scales curved into the mouth in a lip-like fashion. The eyes had a significant amount of blank space to them (though what should have been white was black). The eyes were the most familiar thing about them, even though the thin slitted pupils were foreign to me. There was some sense of other emotions besides the relentless obedience to whatever master he had.
Then my tunnel vision widened, and I saw more of his body. It was hard to view their real height on something as small as our television, and they were bigger than I thought them to be. Fifteen feet tall was one thing in your mind's eye, another thing entirely to experience. The snake was organically symmetrical, though there were flaws like a scar running down the left pectoral of his chest; it ran deep but healed cleanly. I'd never seen their skin broken before, I couldn't imagine what kind of force it would take. Between the muscle-bound body and the top of his head, he had a cobra-like hood, but with and apex lower than a cobra's, and no patterns or shapes of any discernible type besides his silver scales.
And further down where his hips ended extended his tail, laid on a tubular bed with steel lining both sides, curled and covered with aerated sheets, cushioned for his heavy body. He was sitting up, his silvery body reflecting the glow of the five computer monitors he was studying with an intensity I'd never seen anyone possess so late at night.
Then he shot a glance at me, and stared. His gaze was so deep within me I dared not move. He dipped his head and brought it back and to his left shoulder, tilting it. After another gesture of this type, he realized I did not understand it. His face was so articulate—it simply could not be mistaken for that of an animal, with such intentional gesture though I could not understand. He instead tapped something into the large keyboard in front of him, its sounds now quiet as they should be. Then he took hold of one of the monitors hanging around his head and turned it on its swivel joint so it faced me.
The letters on the screen spelled out Hello.
I was shocked. I had not expected the snake to be as articulate as it had demonstrated, even though I knew they understood us.
I stood there frozen in my spot. Losing interest, the snake turned back and resumed his work. The word remained frozen on the screen.
I reached behind myself pushed the door until there was only a small sliver of the dark hallway left. He had left the door open and I did not want to close it, lest I somehow slight him.
"Hello," I whispered. I only managed to get out part of the word.
He did not change his expression, and for a moment I thought he had not heard me. But the words on the screen changed, and read What are you doing in here?
I noted the ray gun sitting on the desk beside him. "I couldn't sleep."
He made a face that I couldn't read as any particular emotion. Stay if you will.
I took a seat several feet from him on a chair they had not bothered to move out. The doorway the snakes had installed was on the other wall, and it was shut tight with some arcane locking mechanism—other than it and the snake's bed, the room remained unchanged. The lamp on the desk had not been touched, and the bookshelf was still covered with a fine, unbroken layer of dust.
"Do you have a name?" I asked him, my voice barely above a whisper.
The closest analog in your language is Sissthra appeared on the monitor.
"Oh," I said. "My name's Jenna."
He wrote nothing. His face was serious. But it might not have been a serious expression; after all, I couldn't read any of his other expressions. I hadn't even considered until now that this snake here might have been as shy in dealing with a human as I was with him.
Maybe if I just asked him. "What do you think about humans?"
Stubborn and ungrateful was the reply.
"Ungrateful?" Again, the word was barely able to come out of my mouth.
It alarms me and many of my kind that you would treat your superiors with so little hospitality.
"Well what did you expect," I said, "when you begin to seize our property? That we'd sit back and let you do that?"
You know little of what's happening outside of your own planet. Your leaders never asked, your military doesn't care.
He left that message on the screen and continued doing whatever his work was. I looked past the screen, trying to see his face again. I think he was upset, or angry or something close to those. I leaned against the back of my seat and stared past the half-shut blinders on the window at the moon that was set in the low horizon.
"Then why are you here?"
We need a stronghold against our enemies. Your planet sustains our kind, and our presence would be of great benefit to your people. You would be able to learn from us and we are able to study you in return and utilize your planet as a point of protection for both our people.
"But you never asked us if we wanted that."
Hence your stubbornness. It is not a question of consent, but of what is right. I never question my lord's will if he has been good to me. It is never the thane's place to do such a thing except bring to his lord whatever he desires, that they can together bring peace and create abundance.
"But we . . . some of us don't want you here."
Indeed. Your people do not know what is good for them.
"Good for us?" My voice raised a little. "How can you say you're being good for us when you kill anyone who exhibits the slightest hint of dissatisfaction—"
I stopped, only then realizing I had raised my voice, when the snake glanced unpleasantly at me. His face didn't read as anger, but it might have been.
I bit down on my lip. I didn't want to listen to whatever excuse he could make, so I stood and walked towards the door, as soft a manner of protest as I could think of. I glanced back to see if he was going to stop me, but he didn't look up from his monitors. He had another message, despite not being asked or prompted.
We have killed nobody.
I stared. "What?"
Our guns are transporter beams. Everyone who has tried to attack us outright has been put into a stasis chamber in the space stations over this planet. It is our plan to release them slowly once your rebellious emotions have been quelled and you have learned that we did not come here to conquer you. We have no interest in conquering you. Compared to us you are small and weak, but that does not give us the right to destroy you, especially when we still know little about you, and everyone could potentially be a valuable and worthy ally. We have no interest in changing who you are, as changing the nature of a being is as impossible as creating life with a snap of the fingers. We do not have the right to interfere with your will to live, but all we ask is that you show us due respect, and in turn you might also share in the abundance our lords grace us with.
I swallowed. He shot me a glance and I felt a shiver down my spine. I had no time to think about what he was saying; everything would have had more implications that were beyond my ability to comprehend so late at night. I didn't know what else to say, except . . .
"I don't want to get anyone in trouble," I said, realizing it might have been wiser to hold my tongue, but I continued. "It's just, I think, we have a tendency to say things to get people worked up. To do strange things when we're desperate. I think there's something you should know, but . . ."
I'm not going to be angry.
I took a deep breath. "My preacher and . . . and others say your people are an abomination to God."
That is strange.
"What? Why is that strange?"
God never said you were an abomination to us.
"Y-you believe in a god?"
We believe in God, at least some of us do. I do not see why ours and your cannot be one in the same.
"But . . . that doesn't make sense. God chose mankind to be ruler of nature, he couldn't . . ."
I don't know about that; I imagine by your general surprise by our presence, that God mentioned nothing of places besides Earth. God has never been required to tell us everything.
I turned back to the dark hallway. I didn't want to look at what he said anymore. And I was tired. My heart was racing and I felt adrenaline in my veins, but I was much more worn out than I was ten minutes ago.
"Get up." The voice rasped. The words came out jagged as though spoken through an electric fan.
I opened up my eyes and sat straight up, and realized increasingly with each movement I was wearing my day clothes from yesterday. Sissthra was at my doorway. He took up the entire space of the hallway, and I did not think he could move much beyond sticking his head into my doorway. He wore a curved plastic device on his throat, attached with no strap, and a belt around his waist like I'd seen on many snakes before. The gun was on his belt.
I stared at him. " . . . what do you want?" I asked.
"My lord has given an order," he said, "but I ask you directly as you've had the courage to speak to me in person. You cannot stay like this, secluded in your homes, and must return to your lives as they used to be. We will not harm you or interfere as long as you do not attempt to repel us."
"You want me to go back to school?"
"Yes," he said. "I will accompany you."
I slid from my bed, patted myself down. I looked about the room. Sissthra was standing right in my doorway, and I wondered if I should take a shower.
"I should . . . I need to clean up."
"Take your time." He did not move.
"I mean, I need to use the bathroom."
"My apologies." He hefted himself to the side like scooting across the floor, and let me exit my room. I closed the door to the bathroom behind me. I very seriously considered climbing out the window to get onto the roof, then running.
I peeked back out through the door. Sissthra was just outside, looming over the door as best he could in the hallway that was too small for him, holding his upper body up with his arms. It spooked me, and I retreated back behind the door. "Where's the rest of my family?" I asked.
"Your parents have been seen to their workplaces and will be accompanied home at the appropriate hour. Your brother is still in his room, and has explained to me that he does not have schooling or a job, so he will remain here until such a time as he does."
Seemed simple enough, I suppose. If they were taking people off to slave labor camps, he certainly wouldn't be leaving Robert behind. Unless that's what he wanted me to think.
I closed the door again. The window was awfully small. I was short myself, but I couldn't picture myself escaping. And if it was a lord's order as he said, Phil would be at school, too.
I washed up and dressed, and Sissthra followed behind me as we went downstairs. I picked up my backpack and realized I hadn't done any of my homework for Mr. Wolfgang's class. Then I remembered I didn't care, it was Mr. Wolfgang after all.
I lived just a mile from the school so it was not a stretch to walk that distance. Sissthra slithered behind me the entire way. At first I felt sick, like there was a spotlight on me, and I considered a few times to ask Sissthra if I really had to go to school today. I noticed with each new glance around the outside that things changed. The snakes had already established themselves. In the distance, thin black towers jutted into the sky in strange places. One of these was not such a great way away, given its size compared to others I could see, but I could not fathom what its actual size must have been. I had no frame of reference, except for memories of gaudy old sci-fi shows with their numerous crystal spires and old men in togas. This wasn't quite like that, but the only thing I could compare it to. I wondered what I looked like in a toga.
The roads were bare. A bus without wheels rushed by, five times faster than the speed limit for this road. It took up both lanes.
I also noticed that there were snakes other than Sissthra moving all around the place. Whether every square inch of the planet was populated with them now or our town happened to get lucky, I did not know. One snake emerged from a large metal door that was built into the side of another house, and ushered out several of the people that were living inside, all of them looking rather pale. Another snake passed on the other side of the road, watching with great curiosity a man with a dog on its leash. The man looked nervous, glancing back at the snake every so often.
As my attention shot all over the place, I nearly ran into another snake that was making his way down the sidewalk, going in the opposite direction. Without thinking, I grabbed onto Sissthra's arm and pulled myself out of his path.
Sissthra didn't notice anything usual about it. In fact, he gave the snake that had passed us some sort of greeting. I realized I was still holding onto his wrist, but his silvery scales did not feel so unusual at all. They were just like snakeskin, which was obvious in retrospect.
When I got to school, Sissthra stayed with me. I received looks from everyone. They kept quiet nonetheless, as though I was Sissthra.
At least three quarters of the students had returned to school. Mr. Wolfgang went back to the regular unit and spoke stiffly due to the huge snake in the back of the room observing him like a super-principal. Sissthra took notes about everything he noticed on a small electronic screen he had. Occasionally he would ask Mr. Wolfgang an unusually phrased question, such as "Why did you use your left hand to pick up that eraser," "Could you walk back to the left and pass by again," or even, "Why are you sweating so much? It's 65 degrees Fahrenheit in here."
Ben was absent. I wondered if Phil was actually going to be here.
We passed our principal in the hallway. She looked pleased. If she even realized the presence of Sissthra or other snakes, I did not know, but she had her school under control and that was enough. She'd gone crazy. Crazier.
Sissthra avoided the cafeteria during lunch. None of the other snakes were in there, either. "I can't stand the smell of your food," he said. (I didn't blame him.) "I will be by the water tower with the others."
I watched him leave. Though he didn't express any emotion I could pin down, I felt ashamed of my race for having something so primitive as a water tower. Or maybe cafeteria food. What did the snakes eat, anyhow? Dust?
"You still up for it?"
Philip. I whirled around to see him standing right behind me. He peered over a pair of cheap sunglasses.
I swallowed. "Up for . . ."
"The thing." He winked.
"Alright, but after school. I told Siss—I mean . . . the snake that I was with wanted me to meet him."
"He did?" He thought a moment. "I see."
"It's this." He palmed something small and cylindrical from his sweater sleeve. It looked like a modified cologne spray bottle.
"What is that?" I asked.
"Shh. Where'd the snakes go?"
"Th-the water tower . . . Phil, what are you doing?"
Phil's eyes darted back and forth among the people wandering about in the hallways. When he was satisfied that no confederates of the snakes were watching, he mouthed to me this is the poison.
"What!" I nearly yelled. Phil silently begged me to keep it down, and my voice lowered to a barely audible whisper. "Phil, where did you get that!"
"I'm not saying, not here."
"You're not thinking of using it—"
"Why not? I'll be careful. They won't know I did it."
I looked at him. What followed was a rather long, uncomfortable silence.Phil looked at the bottle. He went over our conversation in his head. His eyes widened.
"You're with them, aren't you?"
"Yes you are—I saw that one following you around like you were his willing pet or something. I thought he was making you do it, that he had his gun to your head or something. What happened to you, Jenna? We were supposed to be in this together!"
"We are, Phil, I just don't think that, you know, killing them is the right answer."
"Then you think that." Phil tucked the bottle back into his sleeve and turned to rush through the hallway.
I gasped. I panicked. I have to tell them. Phil, in his hurry to get away from me, took the long way around to the water tower. I rushed out the back entrance that led there, where Sissthra was sitting in the grass—sitting so much as his tail would let him, like he sat on his bed last night, except with his tail curled up. He was speaking with another snake, one of a darker silver color, but they were still both similar in appearance.
"Sissthra!" I said, trying not to raise my voice.
"What do you want, girl?" The other snake spoke like an air conditioner, through the box over his throat. Sissthra put up his hand and made a quick gesture, and the other snake relaxed.
He leaned down to me. "What is it, Jenna?"
My tongue tied itself into a knot. What was I to say? "I think . . . I think my boyfriend is about to do something . . . unwise."
"Typical," he said. "I would not worry. He has no means of doing any damage while we are here."
"It's not that," I said. "He knows that it's a hopeless stunt and he's going to do it anyway. Please, for my sake, whatever he does, don't shoot!"
Sissthra opened his mouth again as though to speak, but his eyes raised up, looking behind me. I spun around. Phil was there with the bottle in his hand.
"Phil, no!" I yelled.
"You know, this was it," Phil said. "I thought I had you with me, on our side. But I get here to find out that not only has this one been shadowing you, you let him do it."
"You don't understand!" I said.
"I do well enough—we're still human beings!" he said, holding up the bottle. All the snakes around tensed and got up, but none of them made the first move. "The entire dignity of the human race has been destroyed. You let them walk all over you and you enjoy it! I don't know what they promised you, Jenna, or what they said, but you have to listen when I say you can't believe a word of it!"
For a few moments, there was only the rustle of the snakes' bodies against the grass. There was no noise from the school; all the outdoor hallways were filling up with students, trying to see, and none of them made a sound themselves. I expected someone to yell 'snakes go home' and throw a soda can or something, but nobody moved. Several of the snakes drew their guns, Sissthra included.
Phil held up the bottle, and everyone leaned back a fraction of an inch.
Sissthra grabbed me around the middle and pulled me upward until I was near his shoulder, and in the same swift move waved his gun and smacked Phil across the face. He pointed the gun right at Philip, a faint whirring noise indicating that the gun was active.
Phil spit to the side. The gun had hit his face hard, and he already developed a black eye and a swelling along his cheek, and his mouth dribbled blood.
"Don't shoot him!" I screamed, pounding on Sissthra's shoulder. "He doesn't know what he's doing!"
And Sissthra looked at me, calm as ever. Though my eyes were filled to the brim with tears, I thought I could see him give a human expression—his brows arced back, and his eyes read of compassion.
"You don't understand," he said, as he had done many times before. "That's why I have to."
"No you won't!" Phil smashed the bottle against the walkway, the glass digging into his skin as the poison burst into a gaseous form.
There was a flash of light from the end of Sissthra's gun. Phil was gone.
I wanted to pound Sissthra's shoulder again, but it would have done nothing to fix things. I wanted to scream, or yell. But I just cried, and I cried on the only shoulder I was near, the big one covered over in silvery scales.
Phil was gone.
The other snakes backed away so violently it felt like the ground shifted. At least one backed into a group of students. Sissthra, however, grabbed onto a nearby trashcan lid and slammed it down on top of the bottle.
He coughed rather violently, and a mercury-like substance came out of his mouth. It might have been mercury, I didn't know. Another of the snakes brought forth something like a glass dome, covering the trashcan lid and the bottle with it. It covered most of what was there and vacuumed in a significant portion of the air around it, smothering the poison.
I was at a loss of what to do, or what to say, but that problem was solved for me when I was carried aside by a group of the snakes. I watched Sissthra as I was taken. He was getting sicker, and several others were trying to aid him.
Phil, you idiot, you made a worthless sacrifice and only made this more difficult for me.
I woke up, despite having not fallen asleep. I didn't think I had; maybe the snakes put me to sleep, but not through any particular method that I could remember.
I sat in a small, well-lit capsule. It reminded me of Sissthra's bed, but more contained. It felt more cushioned than a waterbed but was as firm as an upright chair, and even went to the lengths of smelling like chocolate. It took me a few moments to realize that there was actually a mug of it sitting on a tray at my right.
In front of me was a glass facing, curved outward. Everything behind it was dark. This came close to canceling out everything that made the capsule comfortable.
An unfamiliar snake appeared behind the glass. His sudden appearance made me feel low to the ground, or else he was exceptionally big for a snake. He made several gestures towards others I could not see. Speakers switched on inside the capsule.
"You are named Jenna, correct?" It wasn't vibrating like the snakes' portable voice aids, but it still sounded robotic. Since the snake in front of me wasn't moving his mouth, I could only vaguely associate the voice as coming from him.
"Y-yes . . . what is this about? Did you zap me?"
"No. You're in the regional hub. We need to ask you a few questions about the poison."
"I'm sorry, I didn't know! I didn't know he was bringing poison!"
"Calm yourself." The snake nodded at me, though I don't know why he did. Either he must have gotten his body language confused, or it meant something else on his planet. "We need to know what you know about it."
"I heard it on the news, they said it was a poison and that the formula was wiped out . . . "
"That is true. It is an extremely dangerous compound that is lethal to us, and in your atmosphere it spreads quickly, as you saw."
"I . . . is Sissthra dead?"
"Sissthra? The one you were with, you mean?"
I nodded. 'Sissthra' must have only been a rough pronunciation of his actual name, and the speaker must not have caught on. When the speaker didn't react to my gesture, I said plainly, "Yes."
"He inhaled a near-fatal dose of the poison, but he is recovering."
I let out a breath I didn't know I was holding in.
"Where did Philip get the poison?" He asked.
"He didn't tell me. I don't know . . . "
"Please understand that we are only looking out for your safety and ours. Reckless behavior and unnecessary cover-ups between our people will result in problems. We do not wish to harm you."
"I swear to God, Phil didn't tell me." After I said that, I remembered his words to me on the phone last night. Ben's been helping me with it. Ben was in on it. Oh no, Ben probably did it; Phil wasn't smart enough to know anything about chemicals . . .
"Do you know or have access to the formula for the poison?"
"Do you know of anyone else who might know or have access to the formula or the poison itself?"
I was silent much longer than I should have been. "No, sir."
In return, the snake was also quiet for longer than he should have been. "Thank you for your time. You will be delivered back to your home." The snake turned to gesture towards the others.
The snake looked back at me, and gestured the others off. "What is it?"
I considered giving up my cover-up, but several thoughts struck me at once. What was I doing? Why was I making this easy for them? I changed my question, but stammered doing so. "Wh-where is Phil?"
The snake paused for a long time before replying. "He's in stasis. Do not trouble yourself over him."
"When are you going to let people out of stasis?"
"It is undetermined at this point. Thank you for your time."
The glass front of the capsule was blocked by an opaque covering. I started to protest, wanting a better answer than that, but he stopped responding to me.
I took a sip of the hot chocolate. It was pretty good.
Within a minute, the hatch opened up, I was in front of my house. It was late afternoon; they must have kept me for longer than I thought.
I climbed out carefully, noting that from the outside the capsule looked even more like Sissthra's bed than I first thought. Its hatch closed and it started levitating. It departed for the nearest black superstructure in the distance.
The front door was unlocked. I went upstairs towards my room. Robert's bedroom door was open. He was getting his things together and placing them in a suitcase.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
"Leaving. I'm done with this. It doesn't make sense to stay anymore."
"What? Robert, that's crazy."
"Yes, it is fairly crazy." He eyed me. "But you have to think about it. The snakes have vastly superior technology to our own and they insist on being in charge. As it stands I could sit in on fear-entrenched stammered classroom lectures dealing with our now-outdated trends, or I could go find out just what they can teach me."
"I thought you hated the snakes."
Robert swung the flap down on his suitcase. "I don't know anymore. I guess I still do, because all of this was a huge life-changing surprise, but it doesn't matter. We've been spending weeks floundering. I'm going to go do something. So yes, it's crazy. It's insane. It's possibly suicidal. But at least it's something."
He zipped up the suitcase and walked by me and out the door. He turned back for a moment before getting in his car. The back seat of it was stuffed with various other objects he had cleared from his room.
"You should come with me."
"I'm serious. Come with me. Whatever high school diploma you're working towards probably won't serve you. You'll be wasting your time here."
I took a few steps back. It was too much to think about. "I can't leave, especially without . . . there's still Mom and Dad."
"If you insist." Robert started the car. "I love you, sis. I'll call if I can."
"Don't do this . . ."
"Don't worry about me. I'll be fine."
I did nothing as I watched him pull out of the driveway and speed off down the road. He passed by a few snakes who took up the viewing space, and in the distance was one of the black towers.
He left a note on the kitchen cabinet for mom and dad. I didn't read it; I didn't want to look at it.
Sissthra's bed in the study was empty. I approached it carefully. It still smelled faintly of root beer. I touched it, feeling a level of comfort in the soft lining of the bed that was much like the capsule I had just been in.
The monitors were still on. I attempted to turn one around, only to find that the tension in their springs or whatever they had was more than what I could put out, so instead I climbed onto the bed and took a look at them.
They were filled with all sorts of strange symbols, but also several pictures. One of the pictures was of me. It had my name underneath it. I didn't know what to make of it.
I wandered around the house after that, unsure of what to do. I felt divided in my mind. I didn't know who to root for anymore. I needed to get out and collect myself and I couldn't do that here. But I couldn't be neutral. I had just one more thing I needed to resolve. I needed to talk to Ben.
After checking the house one more time, I left as silently as I could through the backdoor and went into the wooded area behind the house.
The bunker was just off of the property of an old mansion. It was on the property in its time, but it was right on the edge of several minor property disputes and was lost. Besides that, it was well-hidden, placed in a small trench that was covered up by weeds most of the time, and the door itself was covered in plant growth.
How did Ben find out about this place, anyway?
I heard a crack of branches, as though a large creature had displaced them. I turned, expecting to discover that some snakes had been following me, but instead, I found myself face-to-belly with a creature I had never seen before. It was large, furry, and covered with exotic battle armor. Even though the only similar features were his brown fur and his long body, I couldn't help but think mongoose. He must have been ten feet tall.
And he was pointing a weapon right at me.
"Go," he said.
I didn't know what he meant at first. I turned and realized that the bunker was right there. He prodded me rather firmly, and my stomach leaped into my throat. I climbed down into the small crevice. The door—I had never seen the door before, but I knew it because Phil described it being covered in moss. It was standing wide open.
Though the mongoose was tall, he came in after me quite easily. He was able to bend his body into almost any position he needed. He kept glancing behind himself nervously, though it was hard to tell because his eyes were not expressive—they were blank and shone like gold. When he leaned down next to me, I noticed that what I first thought were tear ducts were actually a second pair of smaller eyes.
"Hurry," he said. Despite the gun on my back he didn't sound hostile. His voice equipment sounded clearer than whatever the snakes had.
I emerged from the concrete hallway into what I could only assume was the interior of a spaceship. It was riddled with thin vertical metal brackets attached to consoles. The room was donut-shaped, with a structure in its center that was symmetrical on both its top and bottom, narrow in the middle. I did not know what it was, but an object in the center glowed pale blue. The door sealed behind me, and the mongoose stepped away, placing his gun on a rack. Another mongoose—less similar, maybe a different sex, but also wearing an outfit of a softer material—came out of one of the passageways and spoke to him in a strange tongue.
I could only guess what they were saying to each other. The first mongoose motioned in my direction, and the second made several clicking noises that sounded like they were in approval. But when the second looked at me, it smiled.
"Welcome," it said.
"Welcome? Why'd you bring me here?!"
The mongoose put on a deliberate look of confusion. "You were coming here. We're rescuing you."
A familiar voice. I turned and noticed Ben there, wearing a strange outfit, similar to the other mongoose's attire.
"Jenna!" he said, "They're taking all of us out of here. Don't worry, the Bonrgzans are against the Kurssaths. They're freedom fighters."
I stared at him. Ben rolled his eyes and explained.
"The Kurssaths are what they call the snakes? And the enemy of your enemy is your friend, you know."
"Don't patronize me, Ben. I know what you mean. But we don't know anything about them either."
"I know them!" Ben's whole body became shaky, as it did anytime he hit on a topic that interested him greatly. "I've spoken to them. That's what I've been doing for the last two days. I know much about their people and their culture already—they don't eat food, they have three sexes, they have several independent nations—I could go on for days about it! You have to come with us, Jenna! Once we get Phil—where's Phil?"
I felt a lump in my throat. "Phil . . . Phil isn't coming."
"What?" Ben was still smiling like I was joking. "Come on, where's Phil?"
"He was zapped by the snakes—er, Gurths or whatever—after trying to use the . . . the poison on them."
"That idiot." Ben looked rather upset. "I told him not to use it—"
"Why did you give it to him?"
"I made it; I had a gallon of the stuff ready but Phil ran off with one of the vials. He wanted to play hero or something. But it's in much better hands with the Bonrgzans, they can put it to better use. They need it since their home planet doesn't have certain elements needed to make it, and it expands into a gas in our atmosphere rather quickly because of the amount of nitrogen . . ."
I was still stuck on an earlier part of his statement. "You made it?"
Ben glanced at me, like he was finally starting to get it. "Jenna? You were all for that a while ago . . . "
"Not now! No, I'm not going to go along with this anymore!" I backed away rather quickly, slamming my fist against the door I came in from. It opened rather suddenly, almost causing me to fall into the passage, and I made my way out the tunnel and just started running. Ben was yelling something I couldn't hear. I climbed out of the crevice, gasping and getting my footing so I could run back to the house. But I was seized from behind by a large gloved hand.
"Let go of me!"
"You've got to listen to me!"
The voice of the mongoose who forced me inside. The voice was calming, but even so, I didn't want to stay. I kept struggling.
"Please! The Kurssaths are lying to you, you must understand. Their guns are disintegration guns, not teleportation guns. If they were, why would the Kurssaths wait until the last possible moment to use them?"
I opened my mouth to respond but couldn't. Even if he wasn't right, his logic fit, and I didn't have anything to respond with.
"I am serious, I don't want to see anyone else get hurt. We're fighting for the freedom of everyone put under their rule. I put my life on the line every day, even though my death would be devastating to my mates. It's the right thing to do. Please don't subvert this or you're putting everyone in the galaxy at risk."
He turned me around and got down on his knees—though he may have just been bending in a way to look like that. "What do you need? Affection? A family? Physical stimulation? We can give you all of that. Please."
"Why are you trying to talk me into it?" I said. "I don't want to go."
"You have to. You can't give away our position."
I had no idea what to do. With what the mongoose was telling me, if he was right, Phil was gone and he wasn't ever coming back, nor were any of the other people they shot. If they weren't trying to befriend us . . .
Were they trying to befriend us? Are the mongooses trying to befriend us?
"I can't. I'm sorry . . ."
"You can't do that!" The mongoose's mood shifted. All his muscles tensed, and he slapped me right across the face. I fell several feet backwards. "You're putting lives in danger! You have to come with us!"
"What makes you better than them?"
He raised his firearm towards me and took aim. "We can't let you—"
He never finished his threat because a long harpoon flew by and hit him in the chest, shattering his body armor. It cracked energy into him, invisible but audible, causing his muscles to seize violently. He screamed.
However painful it was, he retained a hold on his gun and let off several volleys of energy discs toward the threat. I scrambled around on the ground to see what was happening.
It was Sissthra. I could tell because he had the long scar running down his chest. He held up a long, narrow gun, not the radar-looking kind. It had a cable leading into the mongoose's chest. He dodged most of the energy volleys, and the one that hit him only singed.
The mongoose yelled into the crevice, pleading with them to take off without him. After a moment he was able to yank the harpoon out of his chest, causing it to spill tarry blood or visceral fluid, but by that time Sissthra was on top of him. The ground vibrated. Sissthra jabbed an electrified blade into the mongoose, who pulled a vial from the remains of his breastplate and rammed it into Sissthra's face.
I fell backwards when a spaceship burst out of the ground. It was narrow at the top that first came out, but its base widened, and in all it was almost as large as the tallest building in town besides the black towers. The ground quaked, shaking so hard I hit the ground more than once. Engines lit up near its base and it took off into the sky. Small bits of light in the sky—the snakes' ships, I assumed—were firing at it with other bits of light, but the ship managed to escape without being turned into several bits of light.
The ground it displaced was tossed onto both Sissthra and the mongoose. The mongoose was already far past dead, his eyes left unchanged. He stared at me.
Sissthra coughed, spitting up shining liquid. I ran up to him. My whole body shook. "A-are you okay?" I asked.
"No," Sissthra said. "I don't think I could take a second dose of that, not in my condition now . . ."
"Why? Why did you do that?"
"I—I have to . . . they're anarchists . . ."
"No . . . " I shook my head, tears flowing from my eyes, "why did you do it at all? Even after I lied?"
Sissthra smiled. It was very clearly a smile, and I was sure he meant it as one, too. "I would do it for any of your people." Sissthra coughed harder. "But especially you, Jenna. Already you know more than so many others care to. It is not your fault that you are afraid, and that fear makes you do things you later regret. Many times I have been afraid too. But I know you're willing to overcome that fear and discover the truth. I have faith in you, Jenna. God . . . God go with you . . ."
Sissthra collapsed, slumped over the body of his enemy. I sat there, almost expecting him to get back up, but I knew he was gone.
I was numb. The snakes came again. Thinking about it, they were treating me like a pet. They were treating me like a subject. They were treating me like a friend in need of help. But the mongoose did the same thing, and he didn't even know me.
I should have gone with Robert. But Robert was gone, too.
I felt a large pair of arms pick me up off the ground, and I tried to pretend they were the ones I remembered, and I leaned into them, and thanked the snakes for their help.
Someday I'll meet you in heaven, Sissthra.