His keys rattled as he tried again. The lock was old and rusted, and would fight against being turned–a desperate battle that often left Fischer with aching fingers. He’d talk to Rachel in the morning–he’s told her for weeks now to get it fixed.
The lock finally submitted, and as he turned from the door he heard leaves rustle, and the hairs on the back of his neck stood rigid. It was a windless night.
The last patient that evening had been Patches Shane, who irked Fischer like a painting with scattered lines and arbitrary colors hinting at a meaning beyond face value–a meaning incomprehensible, yet haunting. Patches–or Pat as he preferred–was tall, thin, well built, and had a handsome face which was marred by shadows lining his pale, scared, compassionate eyes.
Fischer couldn’t pinpoint exactly why he sat further from Pat than he did his other patients, or why his hand trembled when they shook, or why he failed to return a smile when Pat cordially greeted him four times a week, always on time. Maybe he was just paranoid–but he didn’t think so.
Fischer was a renowned psychiatrist–if asked, he would rank himself top five in the state. And the Federal Bureau of Eugenics, a division of the FBI that regulated the human gene pool, certainly thought so, considering how much they were paying him to take on Pat Shane as a patient.
But the sessions with Pat went nowhere. Pat would sit on Fischer’s black leather sofa just to tell story after meaningless story built out of cracked glass and wet tape.
“So how are you today, Pat?” Fischer would begin.
“Good, Doctor. And yourself?”
“Fine, fine. Everything’s fine,” Fischer said. He always lied when asked.
He pushed back his chair and crossed his legs before continuing, speaking only once he felt secure.
“So tell me, Pat. Have you been able to relax?”
Pat would smile, but Fischer routinely noted that he only did so with his mouth–his eyes remained pale and expressionless.
“More so than I’ve been in years,” he would say slowly. “Thanks entirely to you and the Bureau.”
Fischer always took note of Pat’s responses for his files, which he sent copies of to the Bureau every week. Although this case was complex, his job was simple: confirm Pat’s mentality as stable before green-lighting his highly sought-after genes.
Pat had been Fischer’s patient for about a year, and in that time he’d maintained a normal lifestyle. Or so it seemed. Fischer knew he was hiding something. But what?
Fischer wasn’t quite yet sure, but during today’s session a new door opened in the mystery–interesting because the session went, for lack of a better term, poorly.
About halfway into their session, Pat had an episode, something the FBE had warned Fischer about but something he’d yet to see.
It began out of nowhere. Pat had been paralyzing Fischer with a detailed, yet fabricated retelling of a fishing trip, when he stopped speaking and his eyes widened. Fischer began scribbling on his notepad. He watched Pat’s hands twitch, eyes dart, and his already pale complexion become translucent.
Then Pat stood, and Fischer fingered the FBE issued panic button in his pocket as he withdrew a sedative from his drawer.
“Relax, Pat,” Fischer said. No response.
Pat, trancelike, made for the door–keeping his wide, haunted eyes locked upon the doctor.
Fischer had no choice. Reluctantly, he activated the panic button and jabbed the syringe into Pat’s forearm.
He eased Pat back down onto the couch, veins bulging on his forehead from the effort. Sessions had been going so smoothly, he thought as Pat collapsed. Well, at least relatively speaking.
After leopard print hives and apparent anaphylactic shock, Pat lost consciousness, but as he did so he mumbled nonsense.
“You betrayed us,” he said. Then, “You’re one of them.”
“You betrayed us,” and “You’re one of them.” Just when Fischer’s doubts concerning Pat’s stability had begun to subside. He’d been mere days away from signing off on Pat’s genes, and with enough evidence to do so ethically. He’d almost been free of that feeling in his gut… and the source of his nightmares.
It just so happened that in his profession there were times that instinct proved itself correct against contradicting evidence. Pride and feelings of satisfaction enveloped, warmth flowed, and mental champagne poured–he was good at his life’s work, his life had meaning–go celebrate. Fischer had a great relationship with his instinct, and relished moments when it steered him through the fog. It felt good, being correct–
This, however, was not one of those times.
The leaves rustled again, and Fischer returned to the present. He sighed and rubbed his hands together. His fingers were still sore from that damn lock. He grabbed the lapel of his overcoat and turned from the door, casting his gaze across the dark and foreboding parking lot. The light of a single streetlamp overhead cast a circular glow on the ground, its yellow beam visible in the night’s mist. Directly in the glow’s center was his new red 2017 Mercedes Benz, the only car left in that rundown, cold, and otherwise empty strip mall.
He parked beneath that single streetlamp intentionally. Every action was a meager attempt at security–that was all he had. From his perpetual days spent behind the multiple doors of his office, subconsciously crossing his legs, tracing the same cold walls by now laced with a cold memory of his youth, he’d resigned to obstinate selflessness, hazardous enough as it was. At least he had his locks indoors.
The night was different. Every night he crossed the dark parking lot that felt less like a gateway home and more like a hiatus between recurrent nightmares, praying that his career choice and solitude wouldn’t lead to an untimely death.
He felt a painful grinding in his head and assumed the worst.
Opening the driver’s side door, Fischer tossed his large leather-bound daytimer to the backseat and as he did so he quickly scanned for anything malicious, but found his beige leather seats void of evil.
He sat down and shut the door, shivering off the idea of an attacker prowling, shaking bushes, and watching him like a jungle cat. He hit the lock button and the knobs of all four doors fell like tiny prison cell bolts. A familiar sense of security enveloped. False security, of course. It wasn’t like the windows were impenetrable, but for eighty thousand dollars they sure as hell felt like they were.
He sat for a minute and rubbed his temples, waiting for the headache to subside. After a moment it did–as quickly as it had come on.
He twisted his key in the ignition and the car rumbled to life. The oddly calming “Welcome to the Jungle” destroyed the cold silence like wildfire. Fischer took one last look at his office and pulled away from the parking lot.
He drove home, heading as always towards the I-95 Skyway, trying not to think about the day’s events. Trying not to think about Pat Shane. He told himself that you just can’t win them all, and assured his brain that the matter was settled, and he’d hear no more of it. But his brain was persistent.
What exactly was bothering him? He’d had patients freak on him before–although those patients were never remotely as intelligent, nor as seemingly capable of evil as Pat Shane. It was rare that Fischer had a patient whom he considered as sharp as himself. Not only was Pat as smart, he was decidedly smarter.
“You betrayed us.”
Chills became spiders on his arms at the thought, and he resorted to calming himself with thoughts of the scotch on his mantle, and relaxing with a glass or two to take the edge off. Maybe a third and a fourth glass to wash down the previous two. It had been one of those days.
Engaging magnetically to the metal lift, the Mercedes was yanked airborne as if a prize in a claw crane. Fischer loved the view from the Skyway, which was like a long metal ski lift for cars about thirty feet above I-95. Despite this new and exciting method of transportation, however, many people still preferred antiquity. Fischer enjoyed watching the cars below as he passed them by, but he understood their drivers’ reluctance. He knew from experience that not everyone adjusted well to new technology–a good reason why his profession was so lucrative.
That, and of course, the aliens.
After a ten minute gondola-esque ride, his car disengaged from the Skyway. Paying the dollar-fifty toll, he turned left and continued the short drive, checking his rear view mirror every few seconds. As far as he could tell, he wasn’t being followed. So what was the nagging feeling that kept at his subconscious?
Following the bend of the road, he sighed with relief as he pulled up to his neighborhood.
Winter Oaks was a gated development, and a damn nice one at that. Filled with million dollar two-story mansions, customized mailboxes, gym, golf course, tennis courts, pools, Jacuzzis, and a guard posted at the gated entrance through all hours of the day and night–only the richest, most elite members of society could afford its offered luxury.
Harry Samuels was on duty tonight. He was Fischer’s least favorite guard. Samuels had a habit of reclining in his chair, resting his feet on the desk, and snoring audibly until a car pulled up, sometimes sleeping through a few honks. Which was what Fischer had to do now.
“S-sorry ’bout that Doctor.”
Frustrated as he was, Fischer wasn’t going to berate the man. At this point he just wanted to get back home to his chair and his scotch.
“How’s the night going, Samuels?” Fischer asked.
“Good sir, very pleasant.”
“If you don’t mind me asking–have you noticed anything suspicious around tonight?”
Samuels laughed, but stopped when he realized Fischer wasn’t joking. “No sir, nothing suspicious.”
Fischer nodded as Samuels opened the gate. He drove through his neighborhood, practically speeding in anticipation of the calming release hidden within that amber tonic. Unlocking his front door, he sighed with relief that not only was it still locked, but it also showed no signs of foreign tampering. That settled it–he hadn’t been followed. He was finally secure.
He stepped inside, took off his coat, and locked the door behind him. His entrance hallway had red carpet, mirrors on both sides that trapped you within infinity as you stood between them, and white walls with studio lights. He lived on his own–no pets, no family. He kept his home spotless. A housekeeper came three times a week, but despite her large hourly wage he cleaned after himself and did most of her work for her.
Inside the freezer portion of his stainless steel fridge he had countless frozen meals. He would pick up dinner on his way home when he was in the mood–which meant he microwaved frozen meals often.
In the sky, high above Winter Oaks and even higher, above Jacksonville, above Florida, through silver clouds and above the United States, above North America, into the atmosphere and higher still until the cold Northern Hemisphere emanated like a glowing television in a dark empty room–a galactic silence was broken. A satellite ticked and beeped, and a photograph of an alien civilization about 2,100 light-seconds from Earth downloaded line after line into a 100 by 100 yard cement room with a hedge-maze of stacked processors. This photograph, with a resolution that would’ve been mediocre for thirty-year-old technology, revealed rectangles. Laced sporadically between these rectangles were dots. A less advanced species than humanity might’ve thought these dots aliens–but those employed by NASA were certain that those dots were not aliens, but their automobile equivalent.
Finally in his parlor, sipping his scotch, relaxing on his velour armchair by the mantle, Fischer had forgotten until the beeping of his microwave that he’d been zapping food. He placed his glass on the coffee table beside the armchair and walked into the kitchen. The red carpet ended abruptly at the tile separating the two rooms. Between these rooms stood a four-foot marble counter. Left of the counter was a microwave above a stovetop, and past that was his stainless steel refrigerator.
As he walked he looked at the front door and grinned, relieved to see it still shut and locked.
“You betrayed us,” his brain repeated much like a time bomb. It was an itch he couldn’t scratch. He tried shutting it down, but it was somewhere deep, prickling his subconscious. Something didn’t feel right. It was like a wisp from far off–a crack in the hull of his security.
Forgetting his food in the microwave, he left the kitchen and walked past the parlor, up the staircase, and into his bedroom. He flew straight for his nightstand and pulled opened the drawer.
His eyes widened. His lips moved. “No,” he whispered.
His gun was missing. He always kept his gun right by his bedside in his nightstand drawer, and it wasn’t there. He couldn’t believe it, and scrambled through the drawer as if a large pistol could somehow hide beneath a few sheets of paper and a book. Beads of sweat gathered on his brow as he scrambled, and chills ran down his spine as he succumbed to the truth. Someone took his pistol–he wasn’t alone–his instincts were right yet again.
He wanted to call the police. He wanted to curl up into a ball and cry. He was both the bear and its cub–he was angry and scared, then furious.
“Is anyone there?” he whispered.
“Is anyone there?” he shouted.
“I’m downstairs, Fischer.”
His heart froze.
He could recognize that deep and grating voice anywhere–like the hum of a revving engine. But the inflection it now carried he’d never heard–only imagined and feared. It was the voice of Patches Shane.
Fischer withdrew his cellphone from his pocket, but the moment he did so Shane spoke.
“I wouldn’t call the cops if I were you, Fischer. I have nothing to lose, if they show up here I will shoot you–I have your gun.”
So his instinct was right yet again. No feeling of shock enveloped him–only that of inevitability concluded. Fischer felt the weight of the phone in his hand grow infinitely heavier, and stared at the holographic dial pad like a trained dog at trash. Pat Shane was a man who had nothing, who desired nothing, with a tortured past and a bleak future. “Nothing to lose?” Yeah, he could buy that.
Returning the phone to his pocket, Fischer took a few deep breaths. He was a psychiatrist, and arguably the best in the state. One less intelligent might need the cops, he thought–but he, the FBE’s first choice, could talk his way out of this.
He descended the staircase, and Dante’s Inferno flashed in his mind as he entered the parlor. Shane stood, relaxed and curious, by the microwave, food in hand, evidently enjoying himself. Fischer noted that Shane went so far as to have a glass of his scotch.
Shane looked different. He towered over Fischer as usual, but his gaunt cheekbones seemed darker, his long hair unkempt and ragged, and his pale eyes dragged with the dark circles beneath them. He’d morphed from the Empire State Building into the Buffalo City Court Building–a domineering concrete monolith that had once frightened a much younger Fischer.
But it had been only five hours since Shane’s decompensation, since the FBE had come and taken him. How had he come here? How did he find Fischer’s house?
Fischer eyed his gun on the countertop, which Shane kept in plain sight, right by his glass.
Shane reached towards the gun, and Fischer froze, but he grabbed the scotch instead and held it up.
“A toast, Fischer,” he said almost listlessly. “To you working for me now.”
The doctor stood frozen, his brain ticking a mile a minute. He didn’t understand.
Shane shook his head with a grin and sighed. “Have you never done a toast before, Fischer? Go ahead, get your glass.”
He spoke condescendingly, and Fischer didn’t move.
“What are you doing here Pat?” he said. “You can’t be here. What do you want?”
Shane slammed his glass down onto the counter top, his smile gone. The impact startled Fischer, who jumped. Shane glanced down, as if deep in thought, and when his gaze returned he looked strangely compassionate. His hand was cut and bleeding from the shattered glass.
“I’d get my glass if I were you, doctor,” Shane said.
Fischer complied. He walked to the coffee table and grabbed his glass, the situation already out of his control. The microwave beeped, and he twitched at the unexpected sound. He turned to see Shane taking out a second frozen dinner.
“I replaced your dinner, so no harm done. Let’s sit and chat.”
He walked from the kitchen and past Fischer, who watched him with bloodshot eyes, and sat in the other sofa. He motioned for Fischer to sit, and handed him the second frozen dinner.
Fischer followed Shane’s commands wordlessly, his brain clicking and spinning like a film reel, rolling memories of doctorate classes, searching for anything he’d learned on the subject of life and death, but his projector’s lamp was off.
“Why are you in my house, Pat? Why do you have my gun?”
Interrupting, Shane raised his glass. “To the truth,” he said.
Fischer raised his and drank, keeping his eyes locked on Shane.
Shane placed his drink aside and took the gun from his pocket, placing it on his lap.
“So my question,” Fischer said. “Why are you–”?
“I heard you the first time,” Shane said.
“You never answered.”
Shane leaned forward. “Did you know that millions of years ago, the snail’s shell, as opposed to the mollusk inside, was the actual living organism? No? The snail we see today, the gastropod, was a parasite that buried itself inside the hard exoskeleton of the original round creature. Over time, the parasite’s DNA changed until it adapted what it needed to survive–the shell–and in the process killed off the entire host species.”
Fischer shook his head. “I don’t see what that has to do with anything.”
“Which is why, Fischer, you and I are going to work together.”
“Then why do you have my gun?”
“And why am I here, right?”
“To answer both your questions: to kill you. But no no no, Fischer no, take a deep breath. You didn’t let me finish. To kill you, but only if I must.”
Fischer took a deep breath, holding his head in his hands. He spoke, staring at his lap.
“What do you want, Pat?”
“There you go! First, I want my chart. Second, I want you to admit who you really are.”
Fischer glanced up, Shane was staring back at him, waiting, with a slight grin on his face like a wolf that’d broken the leg of an elk, saliva dripping from hungry fangs.
“Your chart is at the office. And I’m sorry, Pat, but I have no idea what you mean. I’m Doctor Simon Fischer. I’m a psychiatrist. I enjoy helping people, people like you Pat, but also people like me.”
“Good. Keep going. Tell me what you really are, Fischer. Remember that I’ve seen your true face.”
“I live alone. My work is my life. I’ve never been married. I’ve been paid by the FBE three separate times to impregnate three different women. Aside from that, my life is a plateau.”
“Is that all?”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes… yes I’m sure.”
Shane stood and turned away from Fischer, with his scotch in his left hand and the pistol in his right. He took a sip and scratched the back of his head with the gun. Fischer stared at him, wondering if what he said worked, if he broke through.
Fischer cleared his throat. “Are we–”?
“Do you think I’m stupid, Doctor?” Shane said, turning around, pointing the gun at Fischer, who instinctively raised his hands.
“No! No! You’re incredibly intelligent! Of course I know that, I’ve read your files.”
“Okay.” Shane lowered the weapon. “So let me tell you the facts, and feel free to correct me where I’m wrong:
“In 1979, the Voyager 1 photographed evidence of intelligent life on Europa. Europa is one of Jupiter’s moons. Do you know where I’m going with this?”
Fischer stared, dumbstruck. “What? Where you’re– Pat, believe me when I say that I have no idea why you’re bringing up history from almost forty years ago!”
“Okay!” Shane said, voice rising, “I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you are incredibly stupid. That’s fine. In 1980, former President Morgan Scott beat out incumbent Jimmy Carter and former governor Ronald Reagan as President of the United States, becoming President in 1981. As an extreme Radicalist, Scott’s campaign involved heavy criticism of global technological advancement, and he preached that, should the aliens–whom NASA discovered are not native to Europa, but settlers–decide to attack us, we’d be hopelessly out-matched. That is an undeniable fact, and something that you, of all people, would agree upon.”
“Why me of all people? Honest to God I have no idea what you’re getting at, Pat.”
Shane laughed. He raised the gun at Fischer again and cocked back the hammer.
“How fucking stupid do you think we Earthlings are?”
“What are you–what?” Fischer raised his hands again, and he pushed so far back in his armchair that its two foremost legs were raised off the ground. “What are you talking about? What are you saying?”
“You expect me to believe that in almost forty years, you Europans have been just sitting on your moon, ignoring us? Thirty-eight years with no attempt whatsoever at making contact? A society so advanced, yet apparently not interested in even finding out whether or not a planet within walking distance is dangerous? I don’t buy it Fischer, or whatever your real name is. And if you don’t start revealing your plans right now, I will unload this gun into your skull to see if you aliens even can die. It’s not what I came here to learn, but it’s sure as hell better than nothing.”
“I’m not an alien, Pat! I’m not an alien!”
Fischer fell backwards in his chair as Shane approached, gun drawn, murder dancing in his wild eyes.
“I saw what you really are, Fischer.”
“That wasn’t real, Pat! I swear on anything and everything that wasn’t real!”
“You injected me–”
“–I sedated you! You were having an episode!”
Shane laughed, then smashed Fischer’s drink off the coffee table.
“An episode… Why did these episodes only begin after I escaped? After I stopped eating regulated food?”
“I don’t know! I swear I don’t know, they never told me what goes on at GenDec! Nobody knows what goes on there!”
On the floor, Fischer moaned as Shane took a deep breath and calmed down slightly. “Okay. Alright, Doctor.”
He walked to where Fischer’s glass landed on the floor, picked it up, and walked over to the mantle. Fischer wiped the tears from his eyes and considered running while Shane had his back turned, but decided against it. He’d never make it to the front door, a door which he now regretted locking. Shane handed him the refilled glass.
Fischer sat up and took a sip. Then another, and then finished the glass. He exhaled.
Shane sat back down. Silence filled the room, and Fischer heard the pounding of his heart and the swelling of his veins. His breath was so thick that it seemed to mist, as if his brain was certain that the room would run out of oxygen.
A minute might have passed, but it felt like hours.
Finally, Fischer couldn’t stand it anymore, he had to say something. He stood slowly, fixed his chair, and sat down.
“Tell me what you saw, Pat.”
Shane grinned. “Are you going to charge me the normal rate?”
Fischer laughed, maybe a little too hard. He didn’t know how he did it, but right then it felt like he dodged a bullet. He felt like he answered correctly, like he won.
“For you? Only half. Tell me what you saw.”
“I saw the skin of your face shift and disorient. I heard sounds coming from your mouth, and although I understood the meaning behind them, I couldn’t make out the words. I saw you approach me, and trap me, and inject me with a pale green liquid. And then, when I awoke, everything was back to normal.”
Fischer nodded and crossed his legs. He stroked his chin, attempting to look calm, to look like they were back in a professional setting, not in his house, and not with a gun.
“You’re a smart man, Pat. Smarter, even, than I am. Humor me for a moment… if what you saw was just in your mind, and those visions weren’t real, what’s something else that could have caused you to hallucinate like that?”
Shane took a sip of scotch from his cracked glass. He closed his eyes.
“It’s possible that GenDec was drugging me, and my withdrawal led me to develop a sickness not unlike Delirium Tremens.”
“That seems reasonable to me, Pat. So, consider this for a moment: I obviously can’t prove to you that I’m not an alien, try as I might. But you’re a reasonable man, and I know you love this country and what it advocates. So–and not to sound condescending–but remember ‘innocent until proven guilty’? Couldn’t you give me the benefit of the doubt, at least until you’ve found more evidence that suggests otherwise?”
Shane grabbed his empty glass and laughed quietly to himself. “Not bad, doctor,” he said, standing. “You know I invented everything I said about snails earlier, right?”
Fischer stared at Shane, struck dumb, watching him walk over to the mantle to refill his glass.
“I suppose I could give you the benefit of the doubt,” Shane continued.
Fischer grinned. Then he burst out laughing. He leaned back in the armchair, feeling good, confidence rebounding, thinking of the snails, thinking that this was the reason they pay him the big bucks. Yeah, that ‘benefit of the doubt’ line wasn’t too shabby…
He was still laughing when a giant hand suddenly covered his mouth and lifted his chin–stifling first his laughter, then his screaming.
“I could,” Shane said. “But I can’t take that chance.”
And the last thing Fischer ever felt was the cold steel of a razor as Shane split open his throat.