by Vylar Kaftan
Trey donates two cans of tuna to the food bank every week, when he gets his disability check from the tickheads. He buys the usual groceries for both of us—mostly bread, peanut butter, and carrots—and adds the cans last, like a cherry on a grocery cart sundae. Trey says that while we were starving—before the aliens sent checks—he went to the food bank once. He only took one can of tuna, and promised himself he’d pay back double when he could afford it. I asked him why he kept donating tuna when he’d gone vegan a while back. He shrugged and said, “Someone needs the protein.”
That was a very Trey answer, to hide his real reasons with practicality, especially with me. I’ve known him since before the Change, before the war—since third grade. Trey was fighting the class bully and getting the worst of it. So I broke all the playground rules and kicked the bully in the nuts. I don’t know why I did it, except I admired the way the skinny little kid defended himself, and we ended up best friends.
We kept in touch through the war, when he messaged me about marching through upstate New York. He always started the same way: “Dear Ryan, Please come kick my commanding officer in the balls.” Then he’d tell me about the latest mess—cracks in their radiation suits, or toxic waterholes that were supposed to be clear. He never got in trouble for the messages; they needed him too badly. My epilepsy disqualified me from the draft, which probably saved my life. Pretty boys like me weren’t exactly Army material. By the time things were bad enough that they needed any warm body, there wasn’t enough human government left to organize a draft.
The ruins at Binghamton were where Trey got sick. By the time I got across the country to him, he’d recovered—well, as much as possible. I remember the doctor’s face as he says Trey will live, but he’ll be in pain.
“What kind of pain?” I ask. “I want to see him.”
The doctor glances at his chart. He’s a big, muscled man, more suited for frontline work than medicine. Maybe that’s where he’d started. “Hard to say. We don’t know what effects toxicyplase will have on a human. It shouldn’t have any, but…”
“What do you mean? Isn’t this stuff tested before it’s deployed?”
“Of course.” The doctor studies my face. “You don’t even know, do you.”
“The tickheads never attack. They just turn our own weapons against us.”
“Well, of course I know that. That’s what happened to New York, Tokyo, New Delhi—”
The doctor holds up a hand. “It’s not just nukes. It’s anything we do. Chemical weapons, biological weapons—they turn them all back on us. We’ve never seen a tickhead weapon. Maybe they don’t have any. But their defenses are incredible. They only hurt those who attack them. Toxicyplase should be harmless to humans, but…” He pauses and fingers the gold crucifix at his neck.
“But what about Trey?” I ask, peering over his shoulder at the door. I want to run through the door and find him. I want to see him no matter how bad it is.
“I’ll take you in. But I wanted to warn you: he’s marked. Have you ever seen a marked man?”
The doctor nods. His eyes are sympathetic. “Just remember, it’s why he survived. They saved him. They watched the others die, and they healed him.”
“They always heal one in every encounter. But they leave them marked.”
“How could the chemical harm humans if it was designed to hurt tickheads?” I picture Trey broken, bleeding, burned—I don’t even know what to expect. My memory flashes to our high school judo class. We faced each other in practice, Trey grinning at me like a jester. The instructor’s voice called, “Use his own strength against him.” It didn’t help—Trey still took me down. I can’t imagine him anything less than whole.
The doctor sighs. “We just don’t know. Trey’s condition is similar to the intended results on the tickheads. It’s like they converted the toxicyplase to an entirely different substance.” He clears his throat. “If you ask me, they’re not aliens. They’re the archangels of God.”
“Let me see him.”
I recognize Trey first from the way he’s sleeping: like a mummy, with his arms crossed. I’m shocked at the acid burns pitting his face, the inflamed tendons stretching across his hands, the shriveled skin on his arms. As I look at his wrecked body, I see Trey in front of our band, Cultghost. We’re on a stage I’ve never seen before. The crowd smells like sweat and cigarettes. I’m on bass, and he’s got vocals—but he’s not singing anything I ever wrote for him. Trey leans over the microphone with a low melody: We come in peace / We mean no harm / Put down your weapons / We’ll save you, save you. It’s the song inside me—the song every writer knows he has, and just can’t find when he looks for it. I hum it quietly, trying to remember the tune for later. In that moment I know we can never defeat the tickheads.
“Ah,” says the doctor. “It’s music for you too. Are you a singer?”
“A songwriter,” I say, touching Trey’s hot forehead.
The doctor nods. “Some people see artwork, or a logical syllogism. The mark addresses something fundamental in each person’s mind. I hear a choir of angels.”
“I’m what he’s got,” I say. Trey’s parents had been visiting New York City when the U.S. launched thI’m hardly listening. Trey’s eyes flutter open and he looks at me like I’m a demon. “Sarge,” he croaks hoarsely, “they’re— Oh, God, I—”
“Shhh.” I stroke his head, where his soft curls have been shorn away.
“Ryan?” He reaches for me, but he’s too weak. I take his hand. He speaks quickly. “Ryan, get out of here! They’re here, they’ll get you, they’ll hurt you…” He stops and draws in ragged breath. His eyes fall shut, and his breathing evens out.
The doctor says, “He should be okay for traveling in a day or two. He’ll recover faster with his family and loved ones.”e first strike. I squeeze Trey’s hand. I’m still hearing the music in my head—the song the tickheads put there.
“Are you close?” the doctor asks delicately. I catch his meaning right away.
I look down at Trey. I’m remembering the last performance of Cultghost before Trey left for the military. After the show, we both got smashed on illegal vodka behind the bowling alley. Trey poured us shots and toasted “to best friends.” He leaned his head against me and said, “Ryan, if I was gay, you’d totally be my type.” After a pause, he said, “If you shaved better.” Three shots later and we were making out in the dirt, pressed up against the trash cans. I should have stopped it, but I was drunk too, and anyway I wanted it to go on forever. The next morning he left for the East Coast, and he never mentioned it again.
I look at the doctor. “I’m his best friend,” I say. “I’ll take care of him.”
I take Trey back to my house in Las Cruces. It’s been mine ever since Mom walked away, shortly after Trey left. I got a postcard from her once—from Mexico—and then heard nothing for six months. Then she sent me a hammock from Guatemala. I don’t know why she sent a hammock; I think Mom doesn’t even make sense to herself anymore. I’d been taking care of her since I was old enough to understand that she needed my help. That was the worst part about having epilepsy; I couldn’t take care of Mom during my seizures.
At first Trey is feverish, and sleeps fitfully. I give him my bed and sleep in the bright–colored hammock on the porch. The desert is comfortably cool at night, and it’s nice being outside this time of year. At one point I wake up, and Trey is standing next to me watching me sleep. He pretends he was looking at something else, and then stares up at the moon. When the moonlight washes over his scarred face, he looks like a stranger.
I lift my head. “Hey.”
“Hey,” he says. “How long have I been home?”
“Where’s your mom?”
“Don’t know.” I sit up slowly, balancing in the rocking hammock. “She left for the store one day, and never came home.”
“Your mom is crazy.”
I hate this topic and he knows it. “Not totally,” I say. “Not more than some people.”
“And you let her go?”
“I didn’t know she was leaving,” I say, feeling a rush of anger. “I thought she was just going to the store. She did that all the time. I didn’t even know she was unhappy.”
Trey turns to look at me. He’s silhouetted against the porch light. “Where’s Matt?”
He means the guy I was seeing last month—the one who’d just had a string of bad boyfriends. I thought I’d be better for him. “He left too.”
“What, did you let him go to the store?”
“No,” I say, crossing my arms. “He’s shacked up in Juarez with some teenager. I know where he is.”
Trey is silent. The breeze smells like sagebrush. He says, “I can feel it.”
“The mark. That’s what the doctors call it. I can’t see or hear anything. I just feel it. I know it’s there.”
I feel it too. Every time I look at him, I hear echoes of the song. We come in peace. “What does it feel like?”
We mean no harm. “Like I’m opposite. Like I looked in a mirror, and I’m all backwards now, but here I am walking around anyway. You don’t know what it was like.” He sits on the bench next to my hammock, between a pair of Kokopelli figurines. “We were supposed to use the gas to attack them—attack the enemy. We did—used it, I mean—but—” His voice breaks. “And then it hit us, and—I thought I was dead, I thought I’d never see home again, or my friends, or—” Put down your weapons. “I don’t know why I’m alive. Except as a warning.”
I put a hand on his shoulder. He’s shaking. “Trey—”
We’ll save you, save you. He says, “I’m going to kill them all.”
“You’re not going anywhere,” I say. “Except back to bed, to rest until you’re well.”
“I won’t leave yet,” he says. “Not until I’m ready.”
The next morning he seems to have forgotten the conversation, but he looks more relaxed. I make instant oatmeal and we turn on the TV. All the channels show the same images: tickheads at the new White House, at the U.N., everywhere. All the messages are the same: the war is over, and they’re sorry for the damage we did to ourselves. The tickheads—they call themselves something full of clicking noises—are sorry for the violence with which humanity responded to their visit, and sorry that they failed to anticipate the reaction. They promise to work with the Galactic Whole to repair the damage, and they’re sorry for the delays.
“I’m sorry too,” I say, trying to make a joke, but Trey doesn’t laugh. He puts his bowl in the sink, then turns on the computer. I keep watching the TV, hearing all about the Change. It’s weird to think of how much has changed in the world. New York City is gone, and I’m sitting on the couch in my pajamas, eating oatmeal. New Mexico hasn’t been touched too much, but half the people are hiding in bunkers, so it’s pretty empty here. As far as I know, they’re still somewhere out there, except for the people who actively resisted the tickheads. Trey’s not the only person who got marked after an encounter.
Trey leans over and says, “You know, we have no idea if the war is really over. They have the technology to control everything. They could broadcast whatever they want. Hell, they’ve got the power grid and the airwaves and everything.”
“If they have such great technology, why would they bother? Why did they even fight with us?”
“To teach us a lesson,” says Trey. He punches the couch’s arm. “I need to get out of here. I’m going to get some food. Don’t worry, I’ll come back. What do we need?”
I give him a handful of coins from the penny jar and some batteries in case he needs to barter. It isn’t much of a grocery store—more of a trading post that the tickheads set up, along with the food bank that serves as alien charity. I watch from the porch as he walks down the street. People stop and stare at him. Some fall to their knees or cry as he passes. He’s only gone for an hour or so, but it feels like longer. When Trey returns he’s only got two cans of tuna, which he gives to me. He just says, “Well, that was different,” and doesn’t explain. I don’t push him.
So we slip into a daily life together. We’re broke, but most people have it worse than us, so we don’t really notice. We eat what’s left of the food in the house, and silently thank my mom for having so much bottled water around. The worst is over in a few weeks, as the tickheads clean up the mess. They must have started researching Earth history, because suddenly Trey’s getting checks from the alien government. All the news stations show how hard the tickheads are working to rebuild Earth.
I spend my time writing out “Disarm,” trying different harmonies on my guitar. I write the song in Trey’s voice range, but he won’t sing it. “No,” he says when I show him the lyrics. When I tell him what inspired it, he sighs and says, “So it’s not really your song, is it.” I can’t convince him no matter what I say.
Trey likes the grocery shopping, so I let him keep doing it. Donating to the food bank seems to help him readjust. He looks healthier, though sad. He spends a lot of time researching on the Internet. One night he tells me he found a group in Albuquerque that’s fighting the tickheads.
“How could that be?” I ask him. “If they control the TV, they’ve got to control everything on the Internet. They’re so advanced that there’s nothing we can do.”
“There’s this group,” Trey says. “They’re underground. I know what they’re doing, and I think it’s working. I talked to a guy who won’t give his name.”
“Oh, he won’t give his name? That’s comforting.”
“Come on, Ryan. Give me some credit. If I’m right I don’t want you in danger.”
I rub my temples. I’ve had a headache all day, and I just want to lie down. “Trey, there’s no way to fight them. Don’t you see?”
“They’re invaders. If we don’t fight them, we’ll lose. Like the Mayans, the Incans, the Aztecs. They’re gone.”
“They’re still around,” I correct him. Trey’s always been interested in history, and I’m surprised he’d speak so carelessly. He’d been talking about joining the Peace Corps before he went to the military.
“Their civilizations are dead. Because they welcomed the invaders.”
“This isn’t anything like that,” I say, trying to remember more of my history. “Trey, it’s hopeless anyway. We can’t win.”
“We can try,” he says darkly.
I imagine Trey and his squad, facing the tickheads with some new chemical weapon. My headache gets worse. “Trey, don’t go,” I whisper. There’s bits of glitter at the edge of my vision. My mouth tastes like metal. I realize I’m missing the signs, but I’m not thinking clearly. I can’t remember what’s wrong.
“I have to. I have to do something to save us.” We’ll save you, save you.
“Trey…” That’s the last thing I remember before I fall out of my chair. It feels like a hole in time, not quite like sleeping. I know some time passed, but I don’t feel rested. I’m lying in my bed, next to Trey, trying to remember how I got there. He’s sleeping soundly, and it’s night. Did he come on to me again? Did we have sex? I don’t remember, but my body remembers something happening, something strong.
Then I remember it was a seizure, and Trey must have taken care of me. He knows how; he’s known me for years. He must have brought me to bed, and then lay down next to me. The realization is like a needle in a balloon. We’re just friends—that’s what we are, nothing has changed.
I curl up next to him and touch his shoulder. He breathes easily. I try to remember what we’d been talking about. Slowly memories return to me, like birds returning to a shaken telephone wire. I move my hand to the back of Trey’s head. His hair has grown back, and I stroke it gently. In the dark I don’t hear the mark of the tickheads.
In the morning I wake late, and find Trey in the living room. He looks at me. “How’re you feeling?”
“Package came for you. From Guatemala. Who do you know there?”
“Give me that.” I take it from his hands and look it over. It’s small, and covered with the weird alien marks that the tickheads developed to replace our postal system. They look like bar codes that change as you stare at them. The return address is in my mom’s shaky handwriting—the version she uses when she’s in her scared personality. I rip it open and pull out a filthy matchbox. I glance at Trey and he shrugs.
I open the matchbox, and pull out a colorful headless doll. I turn it over in my hands, looking at the bright green skirt, the yellow arms, and the broken threads of its neck. The head’s been torn off, like a three–year–old played with it.
“What the hell?” asks Trey.
“I don’t know,” I say. “It’s my mom.”
“Like your tenth birthday party.”
“Yeah.” Mom had a major episode then—destroyed the cake and then rocked in the corner crying. I’d sworn Trey never to tell anyone, because I thought they’d take my mom away from me.
“Usually you’re supposed to have a set of worry dolls.”
“That’s a worry doll. You’re supposed to have a bunch of them. You tell each doll a worry at night, and then put it under your pillow. In the morning your worries are gone.”
I glance at the headless doll. “I don’t know. I can’t explain my mom. Maybe this made her feel better.”
“Does she send you a lot of stuff?”
“Not a lot. A hammock, a shirt that didn’t fit.” I think about it. “She sent me a stick once.”
“Do you worry about her?”
“All the time,” I say. “I don’t know why she left.” The wound is reopening. I remember the day I sat at the dinner table, waiting for her to get back from the store. The mac & cheese solidified in a pot on the stove. I watched the bubbles rise in my Coke, then vanish. She’d left at three. The clock chimed nine.
Somewhere in that next hour—somewhere before the chime of ten—I lived through every argument we’d ever had. I relived the past week where she’d been in her child personality. She’d thrown a tennis ball at me, screaming: “Stop telling me what to do!” Sometime, as I stared at the flat brown liquid in my glass and listened to a dog barking, I realized she’d left and wouldn’t return. I did the normal things—called the cops, had them look for her—but she’d taken the Toyota to Mexico, and I knew that was it. I was eighteen, and Trey was at war. I figured I’d just take care of the house until Mom came back, or maybe until Trey returned.
Trey shakes his head. “Maybe she just got tired. Of everything. Sometimes I want to walk away too, but I won’t.”
I turn the package over in my hands. “This looks like it might be a real return address.”
“What, they aren’t usually?”
“No, usually they look like something she made up. This one might be real and traceable. Maybe I can find Mom.”
“You’re going to track her down?”
“Yeah. She needs me. I’ve tried before, but no luck.”
“How can you find her?”
“The tickheads.” I wonder why I haven’t thought of this before. The tickhead mail system is much better than what we had. A lot of things are better now, actually. No more wars, for one. How can you have a war when the benevolent dictator has total control? “I’ll get them to help me. They can tell me where she is. I can give them DNA samples—or heck, maybe they don’t even need them. Maybe I can just tell them her name. That’s probably enough. I bet they can find her.”
Trey stares at me. His response isn’t what I expect. “You know what your problem is? You want to save everybody, but you don’t want to fight. You can’t have it both ways.”
“What happened to the Ryan who would kick a guy in the balls?” He walks into the bedroom and slams the door.
I stare after him, the tiny doll clutched in my hand.
In the last six months, the TV shows the brave new world we live in. The tickheads have done their best to fix us up. They’ve solved the hunger crisis and cured most diseases. I went in to have my epilepsy treated. I sat under a light for a few minutes and I’ve been fine ever since. It was my choice. Some people refuse to work with the tickheads, and that’s their choice, if they want. The world is more peaceful now, but it’s hard to say if it’s really better. It’s not really ours anymore.
I got the tickheads to help me find my mom. But I didn’t go to her, like I’d planned. I just had a message delivered, saying that I love her very much and she was always welcome home. The tickheads asked if I wanted her cured of her illness. I said that was up to her. I keep the headless worry doll under my pillow.
I haven’t seen Trey since he left for Albuquerque. He never told me he was leaving, but I knew. I just stopped arguing. The more I fought him, the more it hurt me. I hid some food and water in the bedroom where I knew he’d find it, along with a little bit of money. He vanished later that week. I finished writing the song, even if he’s not here to sing it. Trey knows where I am. I’m not leaving.
No one really saves anyone, not anyone else. I still buy two cans of tuna every week, in case someone wants them.
Vylar Kaftan‘s fiction has appeared in a variety of places including Clarkesworld, COSMOS, and Strange Horizons. She lives in northern California and blends in nicely with the local fauna. She can be found at vylarkaftan.net or on Livejournal as vylar_kaftan.
Story © 2008 Vylar Kaftan. All other content copyright © 2008 ByrenLee Press
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish