For your summer adult reading pleasure, this is the second of four parts of a short story by well-known science fiction writer Ted White, who is a long-time resident of the City of Falls Church. — Editor
“She’s out of your hands. Security has her.” Slaughter felt a vague sense of loss.
Jack Slaughter saw his first space alien on the tube that night, going home from work. He was staring idly across the aisle at the people seated opposite him, as he often did when he wasn’t staring out the windows behind them or at the moving advertisements above the windows and over their heads.
Where the tube was above ground level, he could see the cityscape through its transparent wall.
But it was still underground and he was looking at his fellow passengers when he realized one of them was staring intently at him.
At first he thought the man was young, in his twenties, but then he automatically averted his eyes — tube etiquette — and when he processed what he’d seen and looked back again the man appeared middle-aged, fifties or sixties. But still staring at him in a cold dispassionate way, his gaze unwavering. Disquieting, Slaughter thought. He stared back, more curious than disquieted.
They locked eyes. Slaughter wondered if this kind of confrontation was wise, but couldn’t help himself. He returned stare for stare.
But he blinked first, and it was such a relief from trying to hold that stare that he let his eyes stay closed for a long moment. When he opened them the alien was gone. Sitting in his place was a dusty, dumpy, conservatively dressed elderly woman, whose own eyes were closed.
Slaughter blinked again. Had she been there all along? Or was the space alien, as Callie had said, a shape-changer? The elderly woman appeared to ignore him when he got off at the next stop.
Slaughter couldn’t get those staring eyes out of his mind. He did his nighttime ablutions and climbed into his pneumatic cradle exactly as he did every night, in an unvarying routine that usually had him soundly asleep within a few minutes of snuggling under his covers. But not tonight.
He closed his eyes, but those staring eyes began to burn into him. He snapped his eyes wide open.
The staring eyes did not go away. The room was dark, but he waved his arm and the room lights, soft and indirect, brightened until he could see everything clearly. He thought that had dispelled the staring eyes and dropped his arm, the room going dark again.
Those eyes! They were like staring at oncoming autocar headlights. They dazzled him. They transfixed him.
Get out of my mind! Did those eyes soften a little? Not enough.
Jack Slaughter got very little sleep that night. He must have dozed occasionally, but mostly he endured those terrible staring eyes, unwillingly staring back, despite his own closed eyelids.
He skipped his usual breakfast at the automatic restaurant around the corner from his aptower, ordering a “never ending” pot of coffee instead. It held three and a half cups, all of which he drank in rapid succession in an unsuccessful attempt to banish the fog of fatigue from his mind.
His trip to his office via tube was uneventful, although he sneaked covert looks at the people sitting across from him. No one was staring back.
“They calls me ‘Typhoon’ Johnny,” said the man sitting on the other side of the small table.
“Why is that?” Slaughter asked, noting from the records on his handi that the man’s name actually was Ralph.
“Cause I spreads disease.” He gave Slaughter a look that said obviously.
“Really? I don’t get that from ‘Typhoon.’ Did you mean to say ‘Typhoid’?”
“Huh,” the man said. “Nevva heard a no ‘tieford’. I spreads disease. Typhoon disease!”
“A typhoon is a hurricane, a vast storm,” Slaughter said patiently.
“What I said!”
“You spread vast storms?”
“Storms a disease.” The man shook his head. “You needs to learn up!”
“Okay,” Slaughter said, wishing he felt more alert. “Do you have a disease? Are you sick?” The man looked healthy, but that meant little, he knew.
“Nah, I’m fine.”
“How do you spread disease, then?”
“I had me these li’l bottles, they done took ‘em away.”
“What was in them?”
“Disease, a course.” He scowled at Slaughter. “You not very bright,” he added.
“What did you do with the bottles?”
“Like he told me, I left ‘em, opened up, ‘round diff’rent places.”
“The alien guy what give ‘em to me.”
“An alien guy?”
“Yeah, you know. One a them space aliens. Got eyes that looks right through you, know what I mean?”
Slaughter did. A cold chill crawled up his spine, raising the hairs on the back of his neck. “And did you leave all the bottles he gave you? In different spots?”
“First I did. Then he give me more.”
“What happened to them?”
“Some a them, I put out places. But I warn’t finished when them officers pick me up.”
“Did the officers take the remaining bottles?” Slaughter scanned the report, but saw nothing about confiscated bottles.
“Sure did. They done took my whole backpack, everything I got!”
Slaughter looked in the report for the backpack, found it, and with it a list of the backpack’s contents. Seven small bottles of cheap perfume were among the items listed. Also listed: three dirty socks, a bottle containing traces of ether, 23 loose sheets of porn printouts (characterized as “mainstream — big breasted”), a candy tablet dispenser loaded with “assorted prescription painkillers,” and neatly folded underwear.
“Perfume? You were putting out bottles of perfume?”
“That wot it say,” the man said with a sly and knowing grin, “not wot it is.”
“What kind of disease is in those bottles?”
“Terrible! You skin, it rots off! I mean, looka me!”
“You? You look fine. You said you’re fine.”
The man raked his fingers over his own face. His nails were so short they didn’t protrude at all, and his fingers left only momentary red streaks on his otherwise unblemished face. “Look,” he said, extending his hands across the table. “Look-a all that rotted flesh!”
“Your hands are empty,” Slaughter said. “Your flesh is not rotting.”
“No.” Briefly, Slaughter wondered if he should have contradicted a client’s delusion, but decided he didn’t care. He was being gamed and the client’s delusion, if that’s what it was, made a fair target. “Tell me about the space alien,” he said.
The man’s face relaxed into a reflective state. “He don’t look the same twice,” he said. “Young, old, different colors — but his eyes, man, they nevva change. Thass how I know him — them eyes. Cuts right through you. Know all wot I’m thinking. That, an’ he always smell dusty.”
Slaughter used his handi to query Security about the seven bottles of cheap perfume. Did they have any biohazards? He appended a recording of the man confessing to spreading disease at the behest of “a space alien.”
He felt conflicted. How much of the man’s story was true? Was the man crazy — or streetwise?
He wasn’t surprised when Security officers, rather than employees of the institution, showed up to take the man away.
The woman shuffled into his office after knocking lightly on the frame of his open door. The open door meant Slaughter was not working on anything requiring his close concentration. He was finished for the day with his reports. The report on “‘Typhoon’ Johnny” was his last and easiest, since all further action rested in Security’s hands. He had his back to the door and was staring idly out the window at the late afternoon milky yellow sky when he heard the knock, so tentative that he wasn’t at first sure it was at his door. But he swiveled his chair around and saw an old woman, her hair a silver-white halo as she stood silhouetted in the doorway.
“Doctor Slaughter? May I come in?” she asked in a thin voice.
Jack Slaughter, PhD, was not a medical doctor. He had degrees in medieval art history. But he did not bring that up. “Please have a chair,” he said, gesturing at the chair in the corner. “What can I do for you?”
The woman pulled the chair from the corner and settled herself into it in front of his desk, not speaking until she had composed herself, brushing the folds of her skirt into place.
He thought he saw a faint cloud of dust rising from the fabric when she did that.
“My name is Avarice Jones and I’m told that you’re the man I should speak to about this situation,” she said.
“What situation is that?”
She frowned. “I was told you knew all about it,” she said, her tone peevish.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, but you’ll have to tell me what you’re talking about.” I’m not a mind reader, he wanted to tell her, but bit his tongue instead.
To Be Continued…