Aliens do exist, but humans should try to avoid any contact with them
– Stephen Hawking
– Donald Trump
New York City: The Near Future
Vion Sandor was cold. Everybody else on line was cold too, but they didn’t know what cold meant, not like Vion did. That’s what he would have told you if you gave him half a chance, going on and on about how he felt the cold worse than anyone else. That’s what he would have meant to say, only it would have come out more like: “Motherfucker shit cold as a motherfuckin’ bitch, you know what I’m saying?” While he was saying it he’d give you a big smile like he was glad to see you but he’d be thinking fuck you.
See, it’s one thing to be stuck outside on a 20-below-without-wind-chill January day, hours grinding by as you wait endlessly on line – but it’s another world when you’re dopesick too. Don’t tell me about cold, Vion would have said to you if you were on line next to him and you complained about the weather. When those chills hit you, man, your nose runny, electric shocks running down your legs, it’s not your flesh that’s cold it’s your bones. You’d have gooseflesh on a Puerto Rican beach in July and what not. You know what I’m saying? At least that’s what Gofuckyourself had to say after he spent some time on the island kicking a few summers ago, when you could still travel. He told Vion all about it, at great length, the night he got back. Kicked for 10 weeks, copped 10 minutes after he got back to the city. That’s what Vion would have told you if you’d asked him. Then again, you’d probably have taken one look at Vion’s clothes and his missing eye tooth and pretended you were engrossed in an old episode of The Glen Beck Show playing on your iLids.
Vion stamped his feet, to stop the bad electricity and to keep his circulation going. Every jolt popped another seam in his raggedy wet combat boots, letting in more cold rain and snow. He couldn’t take much more of this. He squinted, tried to make out the tiny figure leaning over the penthouse balcony. The boss, doling out the weekly bonus. Could’ve had one of his minions do it, but apparently he enjoyed handling this task himself. Leftover paté de foie gras, wilted truffles, maybe some scraps of filet mignon. If he was lucky, Mr. Thomas had been pigging out again, and he might score a half-empty bag of Cheetos or some loose Coconut Snowballs. That’s what Vion was hoping for, something with a long shelf-life, black market stuff. He could trade processed treats for cigarettes, and cigarettes he could trade for, well, anything. He couldn’t take much more of this, but Kay would kill him if he came home empty-handed. Man, she’d be mad. He wasn’t going anywhere; though cold and miserable, sneezing and yawning, so sick and tired he just wanted to lay down and die, he kept on waiting.
MegaVision dealers, all ex-middle management, were loitering on the other side of the moat, outside the exits, ready to barter. He could hear them shouting “Perricco, Manteca, Perricco, Manteca!” at the top of their lungs. But they were selling garbage, company store crap. Still, just hearing them, he could taste the stuff on the back of his throat. It would be hard to resist the convenience when he walked past them, but he wouldn’t buy from them if he could stop himself. Once he got home, he’d find Gofuckyourself and cop some serious weight of something nice.
Clear liquid dribbled from Vion’s nose; he shivered and wiped it with the sleeve of his tattered Blue before it froze to his face. The line, which had been moving at a snail’s pace, was now at a complete standstill. Something was wrong. Where the hell did Mr. Thomas go? He had left the balcony fifteen minutes ago, promising through his bullhorn that he’d be right back, as soon as Space Ghost was over. Not Coast to Coast mind you, this was the original ’67 show, and Mr. Thomas felt it merited the interruption.
Vion cast a wary glance over at the Zebra minding the line. Sensing Vion’s gaze, the stormtrooper almost imperceptibly shifted, casually aiming his stunner at Vion’s head. He pulled a half-eaten doughnut from his bullet-proof cloak and munched deliberately. Vion quickly trained his eyes on a patch of brown muck in the snow and held his breath. The stormtrooper spoke softly with menace, like Clint Eastwood. “Stay in line or you don’t get served, white boy.”
“Watch your ass, douchebag, you’ll get us all killed!” someone hissed from behind.
“Suck my dick, yuppie!” Vion retorted. That ought to show that dickhead motherfucker. Not that the word ‘yuppie’ meant anything anymore, now that upward mobility was a thing of the past, but Vion still liked the word to describe people he didn’t like, which meant just about everyone except Kay, and sometimes he called her a yuppie too. The funny thing was that now, relatively speaking, he was a yuppie. It took the Big E for Vion to get a job, a real job, with benefits and everything, for the first time ever. Yeah, right, some benefits, he thought, watching the dirty snow swirl around his boots. A dulcet voice crackled from the speakers overhead, “MegaVision employees numbering 3000 to 3250, please step forward 5 paces.” The queue, like a giant centipede, took 5 steps forward.
“Psst, need anything?” His rear neighbor again, ready to let bygones be bygones. Vion decided the guy wasn’t such a jerk after all, was probably more or less a regular Joe.
“On the Urkell, you want a little brown dope? ”
“Five Trizzles for an eight ball.” Five T’s for last night’s trey bag, Vion thought, but he was too sick to argue. Gofuckyourself sold Urkell too, right out of Vion’s building, so Vion knew it was slamming. But Gofuckyourself hadn’t been on the stoop when Vion left the house this morning, and he didn’t answer Vion’s desperate pleas at his door (scratching, never knocking) either, even though Vion knew he was home and probably awake too, just wanting to be left alone, no doubt thinking what an asshole Vion was for trying to make him open before he had his wake up. By the time he got home it would probably be 6 Trizzles anyway, and Vion didn’t want to wait that long. And if he copped from this guy, he could skip the company store. Yeah, made sense.
Vion nodded anxiously and the guy slipped a glassine bindle into his coat pocket. Vion fished out the bag, opened it under his nose and discretely huffed up a tenth of it in one great snort, little rocks and all, all the while checking out the corner of his eye that the Zebra wasn’t looking. Of course the Zebra was looking, that’s what he was paid to do, keep an eye on anybody on line who was doing absolutely anything other than waiting on line, but he couldn’t care less about some penny-ante drug shit; he was paid to watch out for whiners, potential troublemakers who mouthed off about the wait or their rations. Still, Vion and the dealer couldn’t help but pretend that they had to get over on the stormtrooper.
Vion breathed easy as the bitter taste hit the back of his throat. Warm waves washed over him and ate away the chill, his legs relaxed and he wasn’t so tired anymore. It wasn’t so cold out after all; a little brisk, maybe, but no big deal. He pulled off his greasy old Rockies cap and scratched his itchy scalp.
“I said 5, bitch.” That pesky yuppie behind him again.
He silently reached into his old Blue, retrieved a crumpled pack of Monarchs and palmed the still unseen dealer behind him three bent smokes.
“Sit on it!” the guy snarled, shoving Vion, making him slip on the ice and pratfall flat on his ass. Trembling with rage, Vion looked up at his assailant, an overweight Red. Guys like this thought they ran the world back in the old days. Problem is, they did, and they ran it into the ground, and despite the sad results, they still felt entitled. Vion felt like pounding the bastard, but he quashed his anger; he didn’t know how this asshole fit into the corporate hierarchy – probably middle management, and Vion was just a worker bee. That’s all he needed was to lose his job; lord knew he’d never find another one. So he laid still on the ice while he figured out what to do.
Interpreting Vion’s caution as a sign of weakness, the ex-yuppie moved in for the kill. He cocked his leg, ready to launch one of his patched Italian shoes into Vion’s head, when the Zebra zapped the Red with ten thousand volts, sending him spinning and screaming to the ground, tumbling over the velvet ropes, steamy smoke rising from his crown.
Vion tried to wriggle back unnoticed under the overturned red ropes to the safety of the line, when cold steel brushed the nape of his neck. “I don’t like your attitude, scumbag,” the trooper said, trying to sound like Dennis Franz, nasalizing and dragging out the “baaaaaag” as he pressed the sharp muzzle of his stunner into Vion’s flesh, the gun’s built-in ready-cam whirring. Vion lay prone on the ice, cursing himself for running. Cops hated it when you ran, they always had and they always would. What a fucking idiot he was. He prayed the Zebra was in a good mood and wouldn’t blast him on general principles; a zap at this range would be fatal. Vion didn’t want to die, not yet anyway, or at least not too much, not like this. He sniffed as hard as he could to absorb the last traces of powder into his sinuses and waited for the Food Cop to make his decision.
The cop clicked the “send” button on his gun and read from its teleprompter, “Please respond to my friend request within 24 hours or appropriate consequences will apply.” Ah fuck, more community service, forced to join the officer’s Group, post his whereabouts once an hour, forced to comment on the cop’s cat videos. What would the cop’s Group be called? “I bet we can find 1000 shitheads who dissed me”? Or maybe “I’m so stupid I rioted at MegaVision company HQ”. Whatever, it was better than a Fun Camp.
From the front of the line, Vion heard a food cop through a megaphone: “I’m asking you disperse. The supply of food products has been exhausted! You must evacuate the area!”. A cry went up from the plaza, beneath the jury-rigged balcony jutting out from the 14th floor of the see-through skyscraper forming the cornerstone of the Forbidden City: “He’s run out! He’s run out!” The cop moved away. Vion exhaled deeply, waited then slowly lifted his head off the cold slick ground, taking stock of the situation. Zebras scurried, raising the bridge and lowering the portcullis while MegaVision employees charged the gate. Those idiots, what are they thinking? Big deal if the shit ran out; everybody here, himself included, could scrimp by a week without Thomas’s castoffs. Vion prayed this didn’t turn into a full-fledged food riot. That’s all he needed, to end up like Gadget, deported to some god-forsaken Fun Camp in Nassau County, six months of methadone and Snausages. Gadget said it wasn’t a bad way to spend the winter, all things considered, two hots and a cot and not too much water-boarding. But Gadget had low expectations.
By the gate, hundreds of MegaVision employees were shouting curses at the balcony and their missing boss. A phalanx of Zebras approached in lock step, their captain shouting out instructions to the crowd: “Yo, everybody back on line, man! Everybody chizizzle and get back on the fucking line, you know what I’m saying?” The whole thing could have ended right there, but some punk chose that instant to lob an empty Zima bottle at a Zebra’s head and that was that; the crowd, now a mob, was no longer afraid of the cops. Reds and Blues alike surged past the velvet ropes and threw themselves at the Zebras, who quickly set their stunners to ‘kill’. The Zebras fried four or five rioters before they were overwhelmed by sheer numbers. Now some of the rioters were armed, and things started getting out of hand.
Vion tried to stay calm, keep his head down and not get involved. The disturbance spread, making its way along the line towards him like a lit fuse. Dozens more Zebras swarmed out of the Forbidden City into the plaza, bringing the heavy-duty anti-riot artillery. Vion heard the whizzing of plastic bullets, the whoosh of the water cannon. Twenty feet away, a Zebra clubbed a painted young lady – she couldn’t have been more than 10 — with the butt of his stunner. Vion wished he was Bruce Lee, or Bruce Willis, or at least Bruce Boxleitner, so he could act the he-man and shout in a commanding voice, “Let the girl go, it’s me you want!” or, “Leave the girl out of this, she doesn’t know anything!” Instead, he just stood there, hoping nobody noticed him, while the Zebra beat the crap out of the tweenho.
But somebody did notice him, blind-siding him upside the head. Hot blood spattered over his face like a lab scene from Dexter. Stunners cracked. High-pitched screams, the sickening stench of burnt skin and the whirring of Super-3D cameras filled the air as the Zebras began to reassume control. “The Scoops! The Scoops!” somebody screamed, and Vion felt the rumble of heavy machinery. Man, what a drag, he thought as the crowd turned and ran, trampling him. What seemed like a thousand boots, guided by spongy panic, kicked and stepped on his head, his back, his ribs.
Everything went red. Vion figured he was awash in blood, a goner; he wondered if he should try to get on FunBook and join I Give Up, at least he’d get a free kitten icon that way. Once again, however, he was mistaken; the wound on his forehead was superficial. He was fine. Something was wrong with the rest of the world. The sun was gone and the plaza was bathed in a rouge, unworldly light. All motion came to a complete, instantaneous halt. Not a word was spoken, not a breath taken as everybody – Zebras, Reds and Blues – turned heavenwards to see what had become of the sun.
Hovering in the dirty Manhattan sky was a huge disc-shaped spaceship, virtually identical to the model used on The Invaders, only much, much bigger, a seamless enclosure apparently carved from a single piece of aluminum. Have you seen that crappy TV show V? With the big-ass spaceship that dwarfed NYC? That thing was bupkis compared to this one. The paralyzed crowd began to snap out of its reverie; some dropped to their knees and babbled in tongues, others started to laugh or cry or faint or piss their pants, while some managed to act as if nothing out of the ordinary was transpiring and resumed fighting. Vion craned his neck, hopped up off the crunchy gray snow back onto his feet and gaped at the huge flying saucer, blinking his eyes and slapping his face like Bruce Campbell in Evil Dead 3 to make sure he was not on some extra good nod or something.
He opened his eyes and looked again; yup, it was still there, the biggest spaceship he’d ever seen. Vion had watched a ton of cheesy sci-fi movies and read more than his fair share of comic books, but nobody had ever had the nerve to depict a flying saucer of such outlandish dimensions. It was so big that it hovered over not only all of Manhattan, the way run-of-the-mill enormous alien spaceships do, but over New Jersey and the outer boroughs as well, muting the sun all the way from Newark to Valley Stream. Later on, during an interview for 15 Minutes, when Vion was asked to give his first impression of the ship, he would say, “It was, like, real, real big, like, way fuckin’ big or something. It was freakin’ gigantor it was like Huge Grant you know what I’m saying?”
Suddenly, a deep, resonant voice boomed through the heavens. Finally, the cops and rioters stopped what they were doing and paid attention. The voice blared: “DO NOT BE AFRAID. WE COME IN PEACE. PLEASE RETURN TO YOUR HOMES IMMEDIATELY AND TURN ON YOUR TELEVISION SETS.” As soon as this succinct, if redundant message — of course Vion would turn on the TV the second he got home, it’s not like it was broken — was delivered, the spaceship rapidly corkscrewed toward the stratosphere, producing a noise like an out-of-tune slide whistle.
The sonorous words echoed in Vion’s ears, oddly soothing, vaguely familiar, like that of a lost childhood friend. Unsure of what to make of such a pleasant order, after most had been expecting a proclamation decidedly more apocalyptic, the crowd peaceably dispersed. Miraculously, nobody was hurt or wounded — it was almost as if the riot had never happened — and everybody left the plaza under their own power.
This strangely calm response to the alien was not restricted to the insurgent midtowners. All over the city, even those who had been indoors or underground at the moment of the epiphanous appearance knew exactly what to do – go home and watch TV. Nor was its effect limited to New York; without quite knowing why, tired and hungry masses all around the world, from Freedonia to Fresno, ineluctably headed back to their McMansions and condos, bungalows and igloos, mud huts, caves and holes in the ground to watch TV.
Vion was stoked; this close encounter of the second kind lifted his spirits to new heights, and the dope was pretty good too. He stood his ground amongst the retreating masses, looked up at the ship — hovering so high up now it looked like a silver dollar in the sky — and smiled. He waved at the aliens, a ludicrous gesture; of course they couldn’t see him all the way up there, but he didn’t care. Vion had no doubt they were here to help, and he was glad to see them.
He turned and headed for the subway, feeling strange. What was this weird sensation he was feeling? Was he happy? Yes, he was, gloriously, ridiculously happy. This was amazing, without a doubt the most incredible and wonderful event of his whole life. No, more than that, it was the best thing that had ever occurred in the entire history of all mankind. Besides, he still had most of his dope left, and if he hurried, he’d get home in time for Cash Cab.
Tune in next week, same bat time, same bat channel, for another episode of That’s Entertainment!