SWEEPS WEEK

Mercedes Lackey is the author of more than 100 novels, creator of the Valdemar universe, occasional collaborator with Anne McCaffrey, Eric Flint, and Andre Norton, and frequent bestseller. We’re happy to welcome her back to the pages of Galaxy’s Edge.

***

I sat at my kitchen table, an amazing array of microelectronics spread out on the oiled butcher-block in front of me. What I had there would have sent my bosses—both of them—into spasms.

What was most amazing was their size—microphones the size of a grain of sand, cameras no thicker than a human hair—in fact, the leads were bigger than the camera. I couldn’t begin to understand half of what they did or how they did it, and—

Well, I’m a microelectronics engineer working on nano-tech. These were beyond nano-tech. So far beyond it that the rest of my team would have taken one look at them and shot themselves.

Of course, there’s no way we could have come up with anything like these gadgets. No one on earth could.

Huh. No wonder no one ever believes abductees when they say they’ve been implanted…without an electron microscope—or the knowledge that these were devices and they did things—they’d just look like the sort of random misplaced bits that show up all the time in human tissue. Old bits of gravel and glass from accidents as a child you don’t even remember, a bit of tissue deciding it wants to be bone in the wrong place. And that’s an implant—most of these were “just” nano-tech bugs.

If I hadn’t managed to hook one of these arrays up to a pocket TV receiver and seen the results myself, I would have thought they were stray hairs and bits of dust.

One of the devices, a triangular bit of something a quarter of the size of a pea, stained the oiled wood of the table beneath a watered-down crimson. That was because I had just removed the thing from my wife’s left sinus cavity, from directly behind her eye, and the crimson stain was her blood.

I’d gotten to it by splitting open her skull with a camping ax.

As I prodded the thing with a long needle, feeling as utterly detached from that reality as if I’d simply plucked the thing from inside a lamp, it occurred to me that it was probably the controlling device I’d suspected, rather than an observation device I’d expected. It also occurred to me that I was probably in shock, and this dispassionate detachment was a symptom of it. Well, I’d never killed a wife before. I’d never killed anyone before. Odd sensation knowing that Rita was gone, irrevocably, and I’d done it.

At least she hadn’t known it was coming. I might be a straight-edge geek, but I’m not completely unaware of what goes on in so-called “popular culture;” a little careful cultivation of the slacker-hackers in software netted me a couple of roofies, the so-called date-rape drug, guaranteed to be tasteless and colorless, and put out the recipient within an hour. I intended to kill her, not hurt her. It wasn’t her fault the aliens were using her. Too bad this wasn’t a book; I’d have had some doctor-friend who could have removed the thing without killing her, or figured out some way to shield her from it.

But I couldn’t take the chance. This was self-defense. A man in my position, working on black-budget projects, can’t take chances. No one was going to believe me without evidence; I couldn’t collect the evidence without alerting the aliens. The moment I alerted the aliens, they’d move on me, probably using Rita. So I had to get rid of Rita, and with luck, collect an implant from her too.

It had to be the aliens, of course. I have been working on black-budget milspec stuff for the last three years, and I have never heard of anything like this before.

I’d always thought aliens existed, in a kind of wistful, if-only manner, rather than a Roswell-Conspiracy True-Believer mode. Going where I’ve gone, seeing what I’ve seen, well, it makes that type look pretty damn funny. I’ve been to Groom Lake; no crashed saucers in sight, only some black-budget ops for a while, then just enough black-budget testing to keep the lunatics focused there, and not on the new testing base, deeper in the Range where civvies couldn’t get near it.

But aliens being out there, somewhere—if I had a religion, I suppose that must have been it. Aliens made more sense than angels to me, always had. Hell, that was why I was a science fiction fan—real science fiction, Analog stuff, with rivets and hard science, not movie guys in bathrobes beating each other with glowing sticks and pseudo-Zen mysticism.

That was how I’d met Rita, at a convention, where I’d been on a nano-tech panel. Couldn’t tell a tenth of what I knew, of course, but my bosses liked me to do it. Partly smoke-and-mirrors to throw the clueless off, partly to find out what the private-sector was up to, partly the theory of hide-in-plain- sight.

Now I know she’d been trolling for a husband, and had switched her targeting system from the software nerd she’d been sizing up to me once she realized that I was probably making a better and more stable living than some support-dude at a dot-com. Then, I’d just been convinced she was my soul-mate, and delirious that she had been so pleased about removing that inconvenient virginity of mine…with a wedding in the offing, of course. TANSTAFL; I wasn’t that naive. I knew what I was getting into as far as what she wanted out of it.

Well, blind infatuation on my part, blind ambition on hers. And if lately we’ve been more like roommates than husband and wife, well, at least she was a roommate who cleaned and did the shopping, and managed to microwave a decent dinner for me every night, which was a damn sight better than every other roommate I’d ever had, most of which were slobs, slackers, or both. And she didn’t tell me to shut up when I talked real SF, and ridiculed Sturgeon’s Ninety Percent. In fact, up until I’d figured out what she was, or rather, what she’d become, I’d been looking forward to spending the next couple of evenings watching TV with her. It was sweeps-week, and even the science shows had some of their best programming for the year on. We’d do an MST3K on movies, though she made me keep my opinions on Trek to myself. She had a thing for Picard, I guess.

When had the aliens taken her over? I hadn’t noticed any obvious changes, just gradual ones. She stopped talking much; the cat took a sudden dislike to her, and the next day it was gone. Her meals had never been gourmet, but they took on a rhythmic sameness, on a seven-day cycle. All of that could just have been boredom, and the fact that the cat never was quite right, more than half feral. Hell, maybe the cat was their first control, maybe she replaced the cat.

Then I found the first of the eavesdropping devices, a couple weeks ago….

I’m not sure why I was so certain of what it was. I just knew, that was all. I looked around, found more—but left them alone. I didn’t want the aliens to know I was on to them.

Instead, I “accidentally” broke one, the first one I’d found, hidden in a plexiglass sculpture I’d bought at a con just before I’d met Rita. In fact, if I hadn’t known every millimeter of that sculpture better than I knew my own face, I’d never have spotted it. Then I set myself up a little spy device of my own, with bits from work, and waited.

What had I been waiting for? An alien to come teleporting in to fix it? Maybe I had; maybe I’d expected to be able to grab the thing and knock it out or something, just like out of one of those damn movies I made fun of. Well, what I got was Rita, in the middle of the night, fiddling with it in the dark, and in the morning the device was back and better camouflaged than before.

Right. That was when I knew that I was going to have to get rid of Rita before I tackled collecting the rest of the gadgets, or as many of them as I could find. Because I didn’t know why they were spying on me, but I had to assume it was for no good reason, and my first loyalty had to be to my bosses and my species. Maybe they were benevolent, but I couldn’t take that chance. You get paranoid in this job, but—well, you know what they say, just because you’re paranoid, that doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. So, goodbye, Rita. Hell, if they were benevolent, why were they using her? I’d’ve been open to direct contact; after watching me, they had to know that.

Well, now I had what no one else had ever had: proof. In a little while, I’d call my boss—the military one—and have him come over. With a squad. Show him this stuff and what it could do, then show him Rita in the bedroom, explain what had happened, and why I’d done what I’d done.

The last thing they’d want was for me to get into the hands of the civvies. I figured they’d probably make me vanish into a top-secret lab, but that had always been a risk when I started doing milspec, anyway—you get too good a breakthrough, well, guess what, you become a national asset, and Uncle owns you, it says so on the contract you sign. Given the circumstances—they’d make it look like I did Rita, then ran, most of the setup was already in place. So far as the world would be concerned, I’d just be one more of those guys the neighbors always talked about on the news after the body was found—“Nice enough guy, quiet, didn’t bother anyone, got along great with his wife, never thought he’d do anything like this….”

Better get it over with. I reached for the kitchen phone and picked it up.

There was no dial tone.

Now, the first thing was, I got mad. It wasn’t the first time the phone had been cut off, it was Rita’s one bad habit, she stuck bills away and forgot to pay them. So I thought, had Rita gotten so obsessed with programming the VCR to catch everything this week that she’d forgotten to pay the damn bill again? But then a movement barely glimpsed out of the corner of my eye made me freeze.

The alien strolled into the kitchen as if he owned the place.

It was a Gray, one of the tall ones, maybe seven feet. I knew most of the UFOlogy designations, you kind of picked that sort of thing up by osmosis in SF circles.

It just looked at me, tall and skinny, smooth gray skin, glittery, big black eyes. It’s no use trying your telephone, Richard.

The voice was in my head—telepathy, of course.

That was when something in me broke, and I felt something I’d never felt before. Rage, pure, primal, unfocused rage.

I lunged at the frail-seeming creature, perfectly prepared to send it where I’d just sent Rita. And I wasn’t particularly concerned except over how much I hurt it in the process, because I wanted it to hurt. A lot.

The only problem was, I couldn’t move. I tried to lunge, but nothing happened.

The thing’s tiny, lipless mouth didn’t move, but I got the impression of a smirk. Really, you should have assumed we’d think of that. You may be intelligent and rational by the standards of your species, Richard, but to us, you’re still a hairless ape. You would not believe the things I have to go through merely to make myself intelligible to you.

I hadn’t wanted to kill Rita; it had been a matter of pure self-preservation. But oh, I wanted to kill this thing.

Oh, I know you do. How predictable. Do try to think instead of emote, will you, while I tidy up?

The alien moved to the table, and swept all of the tiny bits of electronics into one hand, including the pocket TV I’d hooked one of them up to, just to see if it had transmitted (it had). I more than half expected it to disintegrate them or something of the sort, but instead, it took them over to the sink, turned on the tap, and started the garbage disposal. A minute later, and that industrial-strength disposer had macerated the lot, and it was all somewhere in the sewer.

I groaned. I knew very well what that meant. The alien turned back to me, and all I could think of—besides the fact that I was doomed—was an anguished and unformed “Why?” Why me? What did they want? Why were they doing this to me, of all people?

Ah, questions. Again, the suggestion of a smirk. Richard, your little species is so delightfully egocentric. When I think about your religions alone—

The creature convulsed with silent laughter. And the joke is so on you! We created you, you know. Not some invisible, omnipotent hairless ape in the sky. We did it. A snip in the genes here, an addition there—oh, you weren’t the best candidates, but when our backs were turned for a few moments, a space-rock managed to send the best prospects into extinction, so we made do with you. You’re coming along quite well as a species, actually. Much better than we expected.

I’d gone from enraged to dazed. The concept wasn’t foreign to me, after all; it had been used for almost a half-century as a plot device. But the alien’s tone was all wrong, somehow—a benevolent creator, shouldn’t sound so—cynically amused. And why use people like they’d used Rita?

It stared at me as those thoughts ran through my head and convulsed again.

Oh Richard, Richard, this is utterly priceless! I haven’t heard anything so funny in a century! Do you really think we made you out of the kindness of our hearts? Why? To help us populate the universe? To ease our cosmic loneliness?

But—if not that—

The alien’s black, pupiless eyes glittered. To amuse us, Richard. We have so little that can amuse us! We’ve been manipulating you ever since you first bashed each other with rocks and sticks! We made and designed you to bash each other with rocks and sticks! It drew closer; I couldn’t have moved now if I’d wanted to; it felt as if my brain was collapsing under an intolerable weight of despair. How many of your fellow apes have lamented their condition, and wondered how a benevolent God could allow war, accident, terror and disease to exist! And we, your “gods,” created these conditions deliberately, Richard! We set them among you, and set you at each other’s throats, all so we can watch and see what happens! It is our highest art form! From the simple domestic quarrel to world wars, some of us work in small dramas and some in large—we watch, we record, we laugh. You hairless apes and your pretentions, your little teacup tragedies, are the stuff of endless amusement and comedy for us.

Amusement. The human race and its struggles were—a sitcom?

A sitcom. Trust an ape to come up with a ridiculous designation for such an advanced art form as this that we have produced. But I suppose since it’s the only analogy that you would understand. More of a sneer than a smirk this time. And now it’s time to bring in the fourth act—at least, for the episode that you are in. Oh, I worked long and hard on this one, Richard. I thought you would never find the first device. I nearly wept when it seemed you wouldn’t realize that Rita was controlled. Though you did give me a truly delightful surprise when you killed her; when that plays, it’s going to be a sensation. I truly thought that all you’d do would be to drug her. Hilarious!

The eyes were as hard and shiny as polished obsidian, and as heartless. And the fact that now you have been told the truth makes the episode all the funnier. If you’d only drugged her, we’d have had this little talk, I’d have cleaned up all the evidence, and left you here. It would have been good—watching you try and decide whether to tell anyway, without proof. It would have been funny, seeing how long it took your rigid little psyche to fracture. But now! Oh, this is going to be choice!

Of course it was right. No one would ever believe me. My own bosses wouldn’t save me, I wasn’t that important to the team. I could run, but I didn’t know anything about being a fugitive, and anyway, how was I supposed to get cash to keep myself alive on the run?

I was going straight to death row. I couldn’t even claim temporary insanity, everything I’d done pointed to premeditation—I’d bought the roofies, I’d drugged her, I got the camping axe…. Hell, I’d have to hire Johnny Cochrane to get out of something like this.

The alien’s head rose a little. What a charming thought! Perhaps we’ll arrange that, as well, the creature said. We’ll have to see how the ratings for this episode go. But now— it cocked its head to the side, and in the distance, I heard the faint wail of a siren. The alien walked slowly toward the kitchen door. Yes, I believe that our current episode is coming to an end. Goodbye for now, Richard. And feel honored for being chosen. After all—

The alien turned back for just a moment, its big eyes glittering balefully at me. —this is sweeps week.

Copyright © 2003 by Mercedes Lackey