by Kort E Patterson
George Grundig leaned on the shopping cart and waited while his wife Mabel picked out a suitable cut of meat for dinner. By shifting his position, he found he could see between the large lettered specials and into the butcher shop beyond. As he watched the butcher's knife slice effortlessly through the hanging side of beef, carving off great hunks of red meat, he marveled at the sharpness of the butcher's implements. He remembered back when the windows to the butcher shop were open to public view. But people were more squeamish now, he thought to himself. People wanted to avoid the connection between the meat they were putting on the table and the living animal it had been.
As he watched her picking between the clean cello-wrapped packages of meat, George knew that Mabel was one of those who totally blanked out the fact that she was buying chunks of once living flesh. For a moment, he pictured a peaceful pasture full of grazing cattle. He wondered about what the cattle thought in that fleeting moment when the two legged creatures who had always fed and cared for them suddenly turned cold blooded killers. His thoughts were interrupted as Mabel found a suitable package and moved on.
George waited impatiently as Mabel paid for their groceries. As he waited his eyes fell on the display of tabloid newspapers. Splashed across the headline of the Informant were the words: ALIENS ABDUCT COUPLE, HOLD ABOARD SPACESHIP FOR TWO DAYS. George snorted in disgust at the obvious sham story. There sure is a lot of this garbage going around nowadays, he thought as he scanned the text, not admitting to himself that he was actually curious as to what it said. He prided himself on being a second generation Tribune reader - nothing but the most conservative news was allowed in the Grundig household.
As he carried the bags of groceries out to the car, George chuckled to himself at how transparent the account of the abducted couple had been. How can people believe that stuff, he wondered as he closed the trunk lid. He knew somebody must believe it because the tabloids seemed to be thriving. The Informant only appeared a couple of months ago, splashing its UFO stories across the racks. Must be a money making business if they're starting up new ones, he reasoned.
Easing the car out of the parking slot, the thought stirred in George's mind that even the staid old Tribune mentioned the UFO controversy several times in the last couple of months. "You're mighty quiet," said Mabel. "Something on your mind?"
"Nothing really," replied George. "I was just thinking about an article I saw in one of those trash newspapers while you were at the check stand. It amazes me that people believe that stuff."
"You know George," said Mabel. "There's so many people telling about things happening to them, maybe there's something to it. We've seen some things happen in our lifetimes that our parents wouldn't have believed possible. You should keep an open mind on these things. Why just the other day, Patty told me she heard of a man down in Florida who invented a way to make a car run on sea water. Of course the oil companies bought up his invention right away for millions of dollars."
George looked over at his wife of 33 years, and said, "As I've said before, Patty doesn't have a speck of brain in her skull. A mashed potato has more intelligence than that woman. You know where she gets all the dribble she tells you, don't you? From the tabloids, that where. I wish you wouldn't talk to that woman. You know how I feel about her."
Mabel sniffed defiantly, "George, she's our next door neighbor and we have to be friendly. Besides, you don't hear me complaining about the time you spend with Charlie Brenniman do you? If we're going to talk about bad influences, that's where we should start."
George had traveled this route before and he never won this argument. He played golf twice a week with Charlie and maybe had a couple of drinks in the clubhouse afterward. All right, sometimes the couple of drinks stretched well into the evening but what good was being retired if you couldn't do what you wanted. "I don't know how you managed to drag the discussion around from UFO's to Charlie, but I'm not gonna' get tricked into your favorite argument." It was quiet the rest of the way home.
Charlie, Patty and UFO's were forgotten as George and Mabel drove home from dinner out. Eating out was George's usual peace offering after Mabel's silent treatment got on his nerves. He suspected that she started their little arguments just so he would agree to go to a restaurant. "Not a bad meal," he offered. "The vegetables left a lot to be desired, but the rest was OK."
"I enjoyed it," replied Mabel. "You could have left a bigger tip. Sometimes I feel like hurrying out of the restaurant before the waitress see's how small her tip is."
George sighed as he saw the direction the conversation was headed - he'd been down this way before as well. For the hundredth time, he voiced his opinion on the matter, knowing that Mabel could probably recite it back to him better than he could say it himself. "If we got service worth tipping for, I'd leave a bigger tip. Everybody but me seems to have forgotten that a tip is a gratuity for superior service - not extortion paid to a middleman between me and the kitchen. Traffics pretty light tonight," he continued, hoping to change the subject. "Wonder what all those lights are up ahead."
"Yes, it is a nice night for a drive," said Mabel. "George, shouldn't you be slowing down? Those lights look awful close."
"I am slowing down," said George absentmindedly, long accustomed to Mabel's driving advice.
George pressed harder on the brake pedal as it became obvious that what ever it was, it was stopped in the middle of the road. As the car rolled to a stop, George peered into the dark beyond the glare of the lights, trying to see what was going on. The air was clear and warm when they left the restaurant, but here it seemed cold, and a fog was forming further obscuring his vision. Trying to block out some of the lights with his hand and leaning out of his window, he could just barely make out a large square shape in the thickening murk. A wall of dense fog seemed to billow out of the shape and advance toward the car. He thought he saw the shape of a man in the fog and called out, "Hey, what's the problem? Can we get by?"
The shape in the fog came toward the car and George said to Mabel, "Now we'll get some answers." George was still looking over at Mabel when her gaze shifted to the open window and she screamed. George turned to the window just in time to catch a glimpse of something out of a nightmare holding the nozzle of a gas cartridge. He heard a loud hiss and momentarily smelled a sickly sweet odor. His head suddenly felt heavy and he heard ringing in his ears. Then the blackness closed in.
George's mind swam up from the darkness. For a moment the world seemed to be spinning around in his head and he had to fight back a wave a nausea. He tried to lift his hand to his face and found he couldn't move his arms. Or his legs either, he quickly discovered. He cracked open his eyelids, squinting against the bright lights, and saw that he was strapped on a flat slab. He became conscious of the cold rigid surface under him. The surface was smooth and hard, sounding like stainless steel when he tapped it with his fingernail. He could feel a steady machine like vibration through the slab matching the faint hum in his ears. Looking around, he saw a room full of strange equipment and wall panels of blinking lights. Laying on a slab next to him he saw Mabel still unconscious.
Movement caught George's eye and he looked up to see a collection of wires, glowing tubes, whirring gears, and lenses following a track in the ceiling over the slabs. The machine advanced twisting and turning, methodically scanning every inch of the two humans. In his imagination George could feel strange rays striking his body as the machine turned its attention on him. As the machine followed its track, he noticed that its movement wasn't as smooth as he'd expect. The whole device wiggled and shook as it rattled around its track - not a lot, but more than he expected to see in a precision instrument.
The more he looked around the more he had the feeling that he'd seen this same sort of room in every B grade SciFi flick he'd ever watched on late night TV. He couldn't quite put his finger on it, but there was a tackiness about the set up that didn't ring true.
George heard a voice call out, "George! Where are we?" He turned to Mabel and saw that she was awake. He expected her to be afraid and was surprised when she said with obvious wonder, "George, this must be a spaceship! Just like that couple you read about in the paper. I can't believe this is really happening to us. I'm so excited. I can hardly wait to tell Patty all about it."
George was more surprised by his wife's reaction than he was at their surroundings. But Mabel's babble about spaceships triggered his automatic skepticism. He searched the room with a sharper eye - seeking anything that would disprove Mabel's contention that it was a spaceship.
George's search was interrupted when the scanner rattled to a stop at the end of its track and the hatch in the side wall opened. The image that he'd seen in the moment before unconsciousness in the car flashed back into his mind as he saw what stepped through the hatch. The creature was about man sized - a long lumpy gray-green trunk standing on thick legs with long snake like arms ending in a circle of grasping claw tipped fingers. A lump sat on the creature's shoulders where George expected to see a head, but in place of a face there was only a smooth blankness.
George stared with horrified fascination at the way the creature's arms curled and twisted as it closed the hatch. The thought that the creature didn't have any bones in its arms ricochet around his paralyzed brain. As the creature approached fear got the better of his paralysis and he tugged frantically at the straps on his arms and legs. The creature stepped up to the slab and contemplated his struggles for a moment before it removed a gas cylinder from under the slab. George heard a loud hiss and Mabel calling out his name, and then blackness.
George awoke slumped in the driver's seat of the car, held upright by the seat belt and shoulder harness. His arms hung slack at his sides and he felt like he'd been sitting there for days. When he tried to raise his head from where it lolled forward over his chest, the muscles in his neck screamed out and pain flared red hot across his vision.
Slowly working the crook out of his neck, he raised his head up where he could see more than the hands in his lap. The dashboard was familiar but the country road they seemed to be parked on wasn't. The dawn was just breaking, splashing brilliant colors on the morning clouds. He turned to the passenger seat and shook Mabel gently by the shoulder. When he tried to speak he discovered that his tongue was thick and coated, his mouth dry and foul tasting. "Mabel," he managed to croak out. "Mabel, wake up."
She stirred groggily, opening her eyes and groaning from the cramps. "Wa...What happened? Oh, I must have dozed off." When George didn't answer right away, she thought for a moment, and continued, "I had the strangest dream. I dreamed we were on board a spaceship like that couple in the paper, and the alien's were examining us. Then you shook me and I woke up. But it all seemed so real." She looked out the window and asked, "George, where are we, and why have we stopped here?"
"I...I don't know," George replied honestly, his mind a turmoil in its attempts to cope with the incredible thoughts that cropped up every way he turned. "I just woke up myself." He had been nursing the hope that it had all been a dream, but Mabel's matching account took care of that. He flexed his stiff arms and reached for the ignition key. The engine ground over several times and caught, rumbling to life raggedly, smoothing out in a few moments. He looked at the temperature gauge and saw that it read stone cold - they'd been parked there for a long time.
George pulled onto the road and drove off, constantly searching for a sign indicating where they were. His mind was still unwilling to face what his memories told him happened, so he ignored Mabel's questions and after a while she lapsed into thoughtful quiet.
They drove for miles through seemingly endless fields of crops and woods before a paved road appeared in front of them out of the early morning mist. As he braked the car to a stop at the intersection, George's eyes fastened on an old sign almost lost in the roadside brush. The sign read ALLANSVILLE 12 MILES >. Even as part of his mind was thinking that home was 18 miles from Allansville and they would be home in about 45 minutes, another part was repeating over and over, "Stopped for the lights in the road, and woke up 30 miles from home...30 miles."
When he pulled into the driveway, George found further confirmation of the thoughts he didn't want to accept. The paper boy was just adding another paper to the one already there. George picked up the papers and opened the door wordlessly. Clutching the papers he dropped into his favorite chair, finding a little comfort in its solidly familiar feel, muttering to himself, "It can't be...it just can't be."
Mabel clattered around in the kitchen brewing up a pot of coffee. She came into the living room bearing two steaming cups. "George, we have to talk about what happened," she began. "I've been thinking all the way home and the more I think about it, the more real my dream about the spaceship and aliens seems. You haven't said anything, but I can see from the papers in your arms that we've been away for 2 days. Now something happened in those days and I've told you what I remember, so now what memories do you have?"
George had to drag the words out of his mouth but eventually he responded, "I can't believe it. It just couldn't be real. All right, I had the same dream as you. I saw the same spaceship and aliens as you. But it had to be a dream. It couldn't have really happened."
"If you saw the same things I saw it wasn't a dream," reasoned Mabel with a hint of triumph in her voice. "George, it must have happened to us just like it did to the couple in the paper. Everything happened just like they said in the article. Maybe it was the same ship that studied us."
"Wait a minute," protested George. "How do you know what the article said. I read it, not you."
"Oh, I read it at Patty's," replied Mabel without thinking. "She's got a subscription to the Informant. I can hardly wait to tell her what happened to us. She'll be so envious. Maybe we'll even get our name in the paper!"
"So that's where you've been getting all these crazy ideas!" accused George. "You've been sneaking over there to read all the trash you're ashamed to read in front of me. I always knew that Patty was a bad influence."
"It's not trash," sniffed Mabel haughtily. "You're forgetting what we've just been through. Your stuffy old Tribune never has articles about things like we just experienced. And this time you can't tell me it was just someone's overactive imagination because I saw it with my own eyes - and you saw the same thing. And if you can deny what you saw with your own two eyes, then there's not much point in talking about it. I'm going next door where there's someone who will appreciate what I have to say."
George heard the door slam as Mabel left but his mind was in such turmoil that he didn't really care. The revelation that Mabel had been secretly reading the tabloid papers was in some ways more devastating to his perceptions of the world than the encounter with the aliens. He began to wonder just what new revelation would shake his grasp on reality next.
Hours passed as George struggled to come to a conclusion out of the turmoil in his brain. He picked up the papers hundreds of times, checking the dates each time. He paced up and down, dropping into his chair when his legs grew tired. He drank coffee until his nerves were twitching and the bathroom was getting much too familiar. Slowly, a consensus began to form, with the part of his mind that clung doggedly to his old perceptions of reality reluctantly giving way before the part that demanded he believe what his senses told him.
The doubt never completely disappeared but eventually George came to an acceptance that he and Mabel had actually been abducted and studied by aliens. Part of his mind still searched with increasing desperation for flaws in the idea, but he prided himself at being a reasonable man. If he saw it happen with his own two eyes, than that was the way it was.
George's new found resolve was put to the test shortly after he reached it when Mabel returned with the infamous Patty in tow. "Now George," Mabel began. "I've been telling Patty all about our adventure and she agrees that it's just like the couple in the paper. Now you tell her what you saw. Tell her you saw the same things I saw."
George related what he remembered about the alien encounter, with Patty hanging on every word. When he finished his account, Patty jumped up and exclaimed, "If I hadn't heard it with my own ears, I would never have believed that George could say such things. Mabel, it must have happened if crotchety old George saw it too. Come on, let's go tell Evelyn."
The chattering women rushed out the door leaving George once again alone in the silence. He felt like his shining new understanding of the world was slightly soiled by relating it to Patty. He resented that Patty, who he'd always regarded as a dimwitted bimbo, had suddenly become the brilliant expert.
George's peace and quiet was shattered an hour later as Mabel, Patty and Evelyn trooped noisily through the front door. "George, I'm so excited!" gushed Mabel. "They're coming here in half an hour to interview us. Imagine! We're going to be celebrities, with our names in the paper and everything."
"Wait a minute," protested George, sensing in the way that Patty and Evelyn were beaming that a new development had occurred - and he was reasonably sure he wasn't going to like it. "Who's coming here to interview us?"
"Why the reporters from the Informant, of course," replied Mabel. "When we told Evelyn about the spaceship, she remembered that the Informant pays $150 for first hand accounts of alien encounters. When we called them up, they were really eager to come and interview us. They said they wanted to talk with us before we forgot any details. So I said they could come right over. Oh my, I'm going to have to clean up this place before they get here. They'll probably want to take pictures of us and our home, and I want everything to look its best. You'd better go shower and shave - and put on your good suit. You may not care how you look, but if you're going to be in the pictures with me, I want you to look nice." Mabel began picking up the coffee cups and newspapers, pointedly ending the discussion.
George reluctantly got up and shuffled into the bathroom to scrape the bristles off his face. When he looked in the mirror at the two days growth, he knew that shaving was going to be a painful ordeal. And he had a feeling that shaving was going to be just the beginning.
Defiantly dressed in a sport shirt and slacks, George answered the knock at the door. Opening the door, his eyes fell on just the sort of slimy little man he expected - greased back hair, rumpled suit, cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth, strong smelling cologne that almost covered up the odor of booze and inadequate personal hygiene. Forcing a smile on his face, he invited the man in.
The reporter quickly figured out that Mabel was the one on which to concentrate, leaving George to interject a point or two but mostly sit back and observe. The reporter's whole manner grated on George's nerves - the high intensity questioning, the way the reporter seemed to have all the answers before he asked the questions, the way the reporter seemed to steer the story the way he wanted, always accentuating the sensational. As he sat and watched the reporter maneuver Mabel around to agreeing with an account that bore little resemblance her original story, George could picture the little man in any number of unsavory professions. It was easy to picture him selling spruced up old wrecks to the unwary in one of those shyster car lots down on 29th street, or Florida swamp land to unsuspecting northerners. It didn't take much imagination to picture the reporter selling his own mother if the price was right.
George had always wondered what kind of person could write the dribble in the tabloids and pass it off as truth. He'd wondered how such a person could face himself in the mirror with the cold light of morning streaming in through the window. Now I know, he told himself with disgust as he saw how Mabel was just so much soft putty in the reporter's hands.
When the interview was over the reporter went to the door and motioned for the photographer to come in. In George's eyes the two could have been brothers cut from the same mold. He swallowed his dignity as he and Mabel were posed in front of the fireplace - with Patty managing to squeeze into the picture on the right. With the pictures out of the way the reporter made out a check for the story and left with the photographer.
Mabel picked up the check, showing it to the others like it was solid proof of her story. Mabel, Patty and Evelyn quickly decided to share the news with the rest of the cackling old hens of the neighborhood and George was once again alone in the silent house.
If he'd felt soiled at Patty's involvement, he felt positively dirty now. He was amazed at how his attitudes could be affected by the people around him. He resented that the feelings of wonder and amazement he began to feel after Mabel left the first time had been turned sour by first Patty and then the reporter. He felt robbed of the excitement that Mabel and the rest were enjoying. Most of all he felt a disquieting feeling that the whole thing wasn't on the up and up. He had the feeling that there was something terribly wrong with the set up, but he couldn't quite put his finger on it. But whatever it was, he was sure that the Informant had something to do with it.
George fled the house early the next morning for his usual Thursday golf game with Charlie Brenniman. As he backed the car down the driveway he was grateful that he had a reason to be out of the house today. He could picture how agitated the crowd of gossiping old busybodies that Mabel always had in while he was off playing golf would be today. He remembered the last time his game was rained out and he stayed home. Some soap opera star had just been killed off in their favorite show, and from the tears and laments he would have thought something really terrible had happened - like the Giants lost their star pitcher or something. The thought of all the carrying on Mabel's story was going to stir up would have driven him out to play in the middle of a thunderstorm.
As he drove to the golf course, George knew that he would have to tell Charlie about the spaceship and aliens. Charlie would hear all about it from his wife when he got home anyway, so he might as well hear it from his best friend first.
George was already wishing the whole event had happened to someone else as he pulled into the country club parking lot. He couldn't see any good coming to him from it - only increasing embarrassment. He particularly regretted the interview with the Informant reporter that put a shabby and sordid pall over the whole mess. He should have insisted that he and Mabel talk it over between themselves and sleep on it over night before telling anyone else. There wasn't any question in his mind that with a good night's sleep they would have decided to be more discrete. He cursed his weakness at allowing events to get away from him. Gathering himself up, he pushed aside regrets over the past and resolved to make the best of it. Maybe Charlie would think of some way to save the situation.
It took three holes of distracted golf playing for the subject to come up - and then it was Charlie who mentioned it. "George," he began, "You're playing way below your usual game. Do you have something on your mind? Like aliens with spaceships that snatch you up for days?"
George looked up from his missed putt and saw Charlie laughing. "You must admit it does sound pretty funny, don't you think? Come on George, you don't really believe all that UFO stuff, do you?"
George had a sinking feeling that this was going to be an uphill fight. He should have known the story was all over town already. "I don't know what I believe anymore," he began honestly. "My brain want's to believe one thing, and my senses tell me something else. Let me tell you everything I remember, and you tell me what really happened."
By the next hole, Charlie's golf had degenerated as much as George's. By the sixth hole they decided to break early for lunch. George was just finishing with his account as they sat down at the table and picked up menus. Charlie ordered the fish while George absentmindedly selected the special. When the waitress walked away with their order, George questioned urgently, "Well? What do you think? Am I crazy, or did it all happen? And whether it happened or not, what does the Informant have to do with it?"
Charlie chewed thoughtfully on a bread stick. "Let me think about for a minute," he replied when George prodded him.
Charlie remained silent through the salad and well into the main course. Finally he began, "I don't think you're crazy - at least no more than most people. All we can be sure of is that something happened. Maybe not what you think you saw but something. I don't know what we could do to investigate the actual event. The way I see it, the only aspect we can check on is what the Informant has to do with the whole thing. I've been wondering myself where they get all these stories about aliens and spaceships. Seems like people are claiming to see spaceships all the time nowadays - ever since that paper showed up on the racks. Kind of makes you wonder."
"What could we do to check up on the paper?" asked George hopefully.
"I don't know," replied Charlie. "We could go to the library and check up on back issues. Maybe we could find a pattern or something. Maybe there's a lead in the ownership of the business. I don't know, just start looking I guess."
"You won't find much in the library," George said glumly. "Library doesn't consider the Informant a real newspaper. We'd have to find someone like Patty who subscribes - and they aren't likely to be cooperative if they figure out what we're up to."
"You're right there. Let's retire to the bar and think about it some more."
Around the third drink George and Charlie reached an unspoken agreement not to mention the rest of their golf game. Many plans were concocted and abandoned as the afternoon wore on. As the sun was edging toward the horizon and their bar bill was climbing to the sky, Charlie exclaimed, "I've got it! Come on, let's go to my house. We don't want anyone to overhear the plan," he explained conspiratorially.
George was willing to go anywhere but home. He knew the gossiping old busybodies would still be there. Likely Charlie's wife would be there too so his house would be safe. They paid their bills at the cashier and headed for the parking lot. "Meet you at my house," Charlie said as they headed towards their cars. "I gotta stop and pick up some stuff on the way, so I'll be a couple of minutes. Let yourself in and make yourself at home 'til I get there."
George got in his car and watched Charlie roar out of the lot. Maybe Charlie's got to pick up some groceries or something, he reasoned. Or maybe restock the liquor cabinet for a long night. He didn't want to think about the possibility that Charlie needed a lot of equipment for his plan. The outlandishness of Charlie's plans increased geometrically with the amount of equipment they required.
Dreading the worst, George drove slowly to Charlie's house. He marveled at how he seemed to be sinking in deeper and deeper every way he turned. This morning all he had to worry about was his reputation being run down all over town by Mabel's over active tongue. It was one thing for everyone to look at him like a kook, but now he was worried about what Charlie had in mind. He tried not to remember the last couple of episodes he'd endured with Charlie. Now that he thought about it, thanks to Charlie he probably didn't have any reputation left to run down anyway.
George was braced for the worst when Charlie arrived. One of the bags turned out to contain bottles from the liquor store, another frozen dinners. Charlie popped the frozen dinners in the oven and poured himself a drink. "George," he began, "The way I see it, the only thing we can do is go for the source. Whatever the Informant is up to, the evidence will be in that building of theirs downtown. I cruised by there on the way home and it's going to be a cinch."
George could already tell what was coming and his worries were adding up fast. "You aren't thinking about breaking into the offices of the Informant, are you?" he asked hopefully.
"That's it exactly," replied Charlie beaming. "See, great minds think alike. The security around the place is a joke. Just a chain through the gates into the warehouse, no lights, no guards. We can be inside before anyone sees us from the street, and then we can take our time looking around. That's why I bought the black hoods and gloves. You were in the OSS during the war - this will be like old hat to you."
"That was years ago and I was just a kid then," moaned George, knowing even as he protested how useless it was to argue with Charlie when he got an idea in his head.
They cruised by the building once slowly, then parked in a dark spot a couple of blocks away. Well fortified by the extra bottles, George felt the old excitement building in his gut as they walked back to the gate. He could feel his senses getting sharper and his muscles tingling as adrenaline started trickling into his bloodstream. He'd forgotten how alive it made him feel. His mind conjured up a taste of danger in the air, and the edge of fear put all his nerves on a razor edge. After all the years, memories of setting off on a mission during the war came flooding back. He'd forgotten the electric excitement of those times, the near addiction to the adrenaline reaction that kept him coming back for more.
They reached the gate and Charlie cut the lock with the bolt cutters while George kept watch. Quietly feeding the chain through one side of the gate, Charlie eased the gate open and slipped through the gap. George followed smoothly and then rethreaded the chain, hooking the lock on to look as normal as possible. Then they quickly pulled on their black hoods and melted into the shadows.
They were in a truck parking lot. A loading dock with three bays lined one side and parked trailers lined the other. On the wall opposite the gate a personnel door and a window were the only interruptions to a solid brick wall. George and Charlie moved stealthily down the loading dock, trying all the doors they encountered. All were locked. "Don't worry," whispered Charlie, "When we get to the personnel door, I brought stuff to pick it."
The personnel door was locked like all the others. George glanced nervously about as Charlie knelt in front of the lock, manipulating his probes and swearing softly. As the minutes passed and the door resisted all of Charlie's efforts, George edged further along the wall to the window. A gentle push was rewarded by a slight scraping sound as the window slid open. George hissed at Charlie and gestured toward the window. Charlie looked stubbornly at the lock, then resignedly gathered up his tools and joined George at the window. "Almost had it open when you distracted me," he claimed in a hushed whisper.
They climbed through the window into an office. A quick flash of their pen lights showed they were in a shipping office, with manifests stuffed in pigeon holes, and rows of rubber stamps. They pulled out all of the manifests, looking them over and replacing them carefully. They checked the drawers of the desks and the file cabinets. They didn't find anything interesting. The office door led to the main warehouse.
Faced with a large room filled with rolls of paper, George began to realize what a substantial undertaking publishing even a pulp newspaper represented. It dawned on him that since they didn't have any idea what they were looking for, an extended search would be necessary to cover all the offices and printing rooms. If he'd known ahead of time what their chances were, he wouldn't have agreed. But he decided that since they were inside now, they might as well make the best of it. They slipped down the rows of paper rolls, clinging to the shadows until they came to an open space.
In the center of the open space sat a large box with an oval hatch set in the side and mounted on a frame suspended on springs. George suddenly knew they'd struck gold. "That's it!" he whispered urgently. "I'll bet anything that's the spaceship. So it's all a put up deal after all. Come on, let's take a closer look."
George skirted the edges of the open area, moving from one shadow to the next until he reached a point where he was as close as he could get under cover. He peered into the dark corners of the warehouse for any sign of a dozing watchman or surveillance cameras. He couldn't find any reason for alarm so he gathered himself up for a moment, and then scuttled across the open to the base of the machine, continuing quickly along to the hatch. He froze breathlessly for several long seconds, looking and listening for movement. Reaching up and slowly turned the opening lever on the hatch, he inched the hatch door open. In a couple more seconds and both he and Charlie were inside.
It only took a moment with the pen light to convince George that this was the mock spaceship. It looked even tackier and obvious without all the light panels blinking and the machine rattling along its ceiling track. He marveled when Charlie took out a small camera and started taking flash pictures - he'd forgotten all about getting some permanent record or proof. Charlie took two pictures in each direction and they headed for the door. George was feeling rather cocky at their success as he closed the hatch, but his spirits fell abruptly as bright lights flooded down from above. Moments later, strong hands grabbed him and he was muscled into an elevator.
As they waited for the elevator to rise, George saw that the strong hands belonged to men in uniforms with Informant written over the left pocket. The moment of panic he felt when the lights came on eased as he thought about the mock spaceship. He now knew the truth and was sure his ill-gotten knowledge would give him the upper hand.
They were thrust into an office. The leader of the men in uniform addressed the man behind the desk, saying, "We caught these two snooping around in the warehouse."
"Did they see it?" inquired the man behind the desk.
"Yeah, they were just coming out when the lights came on."
"Very well, you can go now."
George and Charlie were released and the guards left noisily. The man behind the desk gestured to the chairs facing the desk and George and Charlie sat down, feeling a little weakness in their knees at the moment. "My name is Tillby, Oscar Tillby," stated the man. "I'm managing editor here. Now suppose you tell me who you are and what you were doing in our warehouse."
George was amazed at the how much the editor looked like the reporter and photographer. He fleetingly wondered whether this was a family business. Gathering up all his outrage at having been unwillingly involved in the Informant's commercial gimmickry, he addressed the editor, "I'm George Grundig. Recognize the name? Yes, I thought so. Well, I wasn't taken in by your little game downstairs, and I came back to check it out for myself. With what I know now, I wouldn't be surprised if this paper was closed up for good by tomorrow."
George's ego expanded as the editor's manner changed abruptly. "Now Mr. Grundig, I'm sure you understand the position you place us in. And as the man of the world that I see you are, I'm sure we can come to some sort of agreement. I'm sure you appreciate what a cut throat business publishing is, and how important this promotion is to us in dollar figures. I don't exaggerate when I say the future of the paper is at stake. Now I would think that a man of your discriminating tastes could use a little extra capital more than all the unpleasantness and public exposure that a messy trial would precipitate. Are we talking on the same wave length?"
Fantasies of suitcases stuffed with money paraded through George's mind and he liked the ring of the phrase "man of the world". "We might be," he replied, quieting Charlie's objections with an elbow. "Just what wave length are we talking about?"
"How about fifty dollars and we won't print the story about you and your wife."
"Fifty dollars! That's nothing!" exploded George. "Do you have any idea what I've been through since yesterday? $50 won't even pay the bar tab!"
"Bah! Come on Charlie we're getting outta' here," blustered George, the editor's patronizing attitude feeding his sense of control over the situation. "And you'd better call off your guards if you don't want a charge of assault added to the list."
As George was getting up to leave, an aide came in and put a piece of paper on the desk in front of the editor. Leaning on the desk, the aide whispered something in the editor's ear.
George's muscles suddenly froze as his eyes riveted on the smooth curve of the aide's arm as he leaned on the desk. Images of the alien's curling and twisting arms returned, alarm flashing through his mind as he remembered thinking they didn't have any bones.
The editor followed George's horrified stare and immediately slapped a button on the intercom panel. George heard the door open behind him and the editor growl to the aide, "You idiot! I almost had him! He was so mad at the paltry bribe that his pride would have forced him to expose our fraud. He even brought a witness with him! It couldn't have been better - we'd be back on schedule within a week. And then you had to forget about your arm and destroy the entire illusion. This will go in your report!"
Charlie hadn't noticed anything unusual about the aide's arm and the editor's response took him by surprise. "Wait a minute, you sound like you want us to expose your shabby little scam. What gives here?"
There was the sound of several creatures coming through the door and the editor replied, "Yes, that was the plan. You see, there really are spaceships - a few here now, and many more on the way. But those ships aren't the ones you humans have been seeing. That was all what you would call a sham. And yes we wanted you to expose it to the whole world."
"We want the whole world to know how the Informant created the UFO controversy just to sell newspapers. Then, when human skepticism has reached its peak, our real ships will arrive. If we've done our jobs well, doubt will cause a delay in the response of the human military. The delay will only last for a couple of minutes, but that's all we need."
"Of course, your missiles and bombs would be useless against the ships of the fleet, but we're under orders to preserve as much high grade protein as we can during the harvest - and even a few misdirected bombs could damage millions of humans. With a few minutes delay, the advance ships can neutralize all of your amusing little weapons before they're fired. You see, the fleet is coming here to harvest protein. Our civilization is huge - stretched across dozens of galaxies - and so very hungry. So there can't be any wastage, and your meat is useless when it's radioactive."
"Don't look so shocked Mr. Grundig. Just think of us as farmers returning to harvest our crop. It really is quite charming the way your species has tried to imitate our methods with your primitive agriculture and herds of domesticated food animals. The only difference is that when our advance ship dropped off our seed herd to graze and multiply here on Earth, we engineered our meat animals with enough glimmerings of intelligence so that they could increase the carrying capacity of their pasture all by themselves. That cuts down the amount of input labor and direct monitoring we have to invest per unit of finished product."
"Now that the Earth's human population is nearing the ultimate carrying capacity of the planet, it's only logical that we return and harvest the surplus. Of course, because of the nature of our herd we have to use special techniques to round them up for processing. That's where the advance ships and this installation come in. It really is too bad you aren't a better specimen because we will be leaving a small number of humans alive as a new seed herd, and you've already demonstrated your inventiveness. That's something we look for in our breeding stock. But you're obviously well beyond your prime years so there's no point in considering it any further."
George glanced over his shoulder and saw that the guards had returned. Two men entered through a door behind the editor and as they stepped into the light George was horrified to see that they looked like he and Charlie. Behind them stood two women that looked like Mabel and Alice.
"That's right," said the editor. "They'll take your place and do what you would have done if my aide hadn't given the game away. It's all done by control over the reflection of light off our bodies. We have conscious control over a form of pigment that allows us to appear as nearly anything we please. Of course the brighter the light, the greater the effort required to control the image. And now, I believe there's part of our normal form that you didn't see in the mock spaceship."
George watched with horrified fascination as the editor shimmered and reformed into the alien before his eyes. Only now, instead of a blank space where the face should be there were two glinting eyes and a protruding snout tipped with quivering red nostrils and a large mouth rimmed with wickedly sharp teeth. "We discovered a long time ago that it isn't wise to let the meat animals know we're carnivores. Makes them skittish. But it doesn't matter with you and your friend any more. Ok, take them away."
George felt a sharp pain in his side causing him to jump several feet. Turning, he saw that the guard had a cattle prod and was motioning him toward the door behind the editor. As he neared the door he saw the clean tiled room. Standing by two empty meat hooks was an alien carefully sharpening his knives...