"You're a good agent, son," says the Nameless Superior. "Dependable. Quick thinker. That's why we'd hate to lose you."
Is this about what happened last night, Merrick comes close to asking. He nods instead. It doesn't do to ask questions, especially stupid questions. Of course it's to do with last night.
There were five of them, out east of Escondido. They were working off the usual codenames, though there'd been one man he'd recognised: last time he had been a Tuesday, but now he was Friday, which made him team lead. It was a cloudless night and the sky had been aglow with stars; too damn many of them, Merrick had thought. The blip had come down in a patch of scrub trees, turning their dry branches to so much ash, and had ended against a barrier of glowering red rock. Its front was badly crumpled, it didn't seem likely anything could have survived a crash like that, but they had gone in weapons hot all the same.
It was Greys—which the men called Mushrooms, because of their colour of course but also because they never knew a damned thing. Whoever was sending them kept them in the dark, fed them a steady diet of shit. They were lousy pilots; they crashed more than they ever landed. Merrick had been glad it was Greys and not, say, Whites. Or Goblins. He had gone up against Goblins once and still, sometimes, had nightmares, despite the pills they fed him, blue and purple and chequered green.
Inside, the air had smelled of barbeque and ozone. Sure enough, three of the four crew were already dead. Not just dead but messily dead, for at the last their gravity must have failed, at least in patches; one was not much besides a smear across its console. The fourth, however, was out of its seat and crawling, inching its way across the silvery metallic floor towards who knew what. It was as big as a large child. Its head was disproportionate to its body, and now more than ever it seemed to be suffering from that inconvenience. It had a wound in the rubbery flesh of its leg, which had leaked a snail-trail of fluid the precise colour and consistency of French mustard.
The Grey had stopped moving when they'd gathered round it. Standing orders were that Greys were not to be captured for interrogation; they were deemed enemy combatants. But just then the thing on the floor hadn't looked like an enemy combatant.
Friday had put his heel on the wound in its leg. The heel was capped with metal. It had sunk easily into the meat of the Grey's calf. The yellow blood-stuff had begun to run more freely.
There was nothing that said they weren't allowed to torture Greys. Still, Merrick hadn't liked it. "There's no need for that," he'd said.
"It's just a Mushroom," Friday told him. "Only another Mushroom."
There'd been no expression on the Grey's exaggerated features; no visible representation of pain. Somehow that had made it worse.
"Stop it," Merrick had said. "Christ, will you just stop it?"
Friday hadn't stopped, only looked at him and kept grinding with his heel.
Suddenly Merrick couldn't be in there anymore. He'd stormed away, past ravaged access panels and bundles of glistening red cable that dripped like cords of exposed muscle. He'd been nearly out when he'd finally heard the shot.
He'd smoked a cigarette, there in the desert, looking up at the too-many stars, and soon the rest of his team had come out. They'd held the site until the clean-up crew arrived, and no one said a word about what had happened inside, though he'd been sure he could feel Friday's eyes on his back.
"I lost my head a little," Merrick tells the Nameless Superior. He thinks that this strikes the right balance between apology and down-playing.
"Sure you did," the Nameless Superior agrees. There is no tone to the remark that would illuminate his feelings on the matter. Nor can his expression be read, for his face is so perfectly characterless as to be beyond interpretation; this they do with surgery. The voice, too: modulated by a chip in the back of the throat. The man is entirely, literally unmemorable.
"No one's saying you shouldn't empathise," the Nameless Superior says. "In fact, you should. Empathy is indispensable in a good agent."
Does that mean the lack of it is punishable? Will Friday be penalised? But his name won't be Friday now, of course, and Merrick knows somehow that he won't be. What happens in the field stays in the field, that's the unspoken rule.
They are walking along a corridor. They're deep underground, a level Merrick has never been to before. They've been walking down the corridor for a long time. The strip lights are motion-activated, so that behind them and before them is just darkness. The lights are acidic, uncomfortably bright. The darkness is absolute. The Nameless Superior leads the way, and Merrick follows. He thinks perhaps he should be afraid, but he isn't. The pills make it hard to be afraid.
They have passed a dozen doors. He knows because he's been counting. The doors are spaced apparently at random, all on the left side of the corridor, and bear no signs or markings. At the thirteenth door, the Nameless Superior stops. He takes a keycard from a pocket, inserts it into a slot. A panel opens at eye level; a light flickers. The door hisses open.
"This isn't something we show to everyone. Above Top Secret, son. You understand? Real far above. We don't want you boys getting the jitters."
Merrick thinks that perhaps it's too late for that. He thinks that maybe what happened last night, that was the jitters. The start of him losing it. He has seen agents lose it before. Maybe, last night, Friday was losing it too. Maybe none of them are ever too far off.
Beyond the door is a room. It's empty besides a counter along one wall, covered with instruments and buttons and displays. Then, as he's looking at the counter, Merrick realises that the wall above it is not a wall at all. For in that moment a second light flickers on, and he sees that in fact the partition is only of glass and that on the other side is a second room.
In the second room, past the glass, is a man. He has dark hair and is wearing glasses, but nothing else. His naked body is hairless and unmuscled; his genitals are small and shrunken, as though trying to retreat into his body. He's in his late twenties or early thirties maybe. Skinny, awkward, not much to him. He could be a school teacher or a waiter or an IT guy. But not an agent. He would not last five minutes as an agent.
"What did he do?" Merrick asks. Perhaps it's an unwise question, but he's never seen a human being in captivity down here before.
"It's not what he did," the Nameless Superior says. "It's what he is."
The Nameless Superior flips up the clear plastic safety cover from a large red button on the counter. The button looks something like a toadstool.
"Or rather, what he isn't."
The Nameless Superior depresses the button with his palm. It slides down easily. In the booth, behind the glass, a fine mist sprays from high in the darkness: spits from a dozen different foci and drifts through the air. The mist is brilliantly green, each droplet a tiny emerald: a million, a billion emeralds, tumbling.
When the mist falls on the man, he shudders—and as he shudders, he smiles.
Then the man begins to fall apart.
His teeth come first. The man opens his mouth too wide and they spill free, like he's hocking up a wad of phlegm, but instead it's his teeth, every one, and instead of spilling to the floor or pinging against the glass they zip aside like fireflies, each adhering to its own trajectory.
They look like miniature vessels, tiny UFOs. Perhaps that's precisely what they are.
Next comes the hair. There's very much of it; more than there should be. The remainder has been hiding within the flesh, and now Merrick understands that what he thought was hair was the tails of things: their tiny heads are diamond-shaped and they shimmy like water snakes, to flicker across the floor into the shadows at its edges. At the same time, two orbs tumble free, to bounce and roll: eyes so obviously fake without the context of a face.
Now what Merrick is looking at appears less like a human being, more like a mannequin; an artificial thing of waxy skin and gaping orbits. But only for a moment—for in a moment that skin slews off. It goes all at once, with a soft wumph. It resembles flesh not at all now, marshmallow perfectly. Under its own volition it slops across the floor, sprouting tendrils and formless protrusions, sucking them back, almost assuming form after form before the spitting green rain disrupts it once more.
What is left looks something like a scarecrow. Its substance is black and hard like jet. Its limbs are spindly. Its head is triangular and faceless—though, and perhaps it's only its quizzical tilt, but he's certain he can feel it looking at him.
The Nameless Superior presses another button on the counter. A shutter slides down inside the cage, and Merrick has an instant more of feeling the gaze of empty sockets upon him before the thing is gone from view.
"What you've got to understand," says the Nameless Superior, "is how much they despise us." He turns his gaze to the ceiling, as though that way he can see through layers of rock and earth and concrete to the night sky above, to the glut of stars it holds. "All of them. How much hate do you think it takes for four species from four separate worlds to band together, just to infiltrate us? To work against us, from in amongst us? Can you imagine, son? A whole universe of hatred."
Merrick remembers vividly the tiny vessels zipping insect-like, the slithering worm-things, the flaccid marshmallow creature flopping across the floor. He remembers a boot heel gouging a ragged wound, and blood the sickly yellow of French mustard. But particularly he thinks of that crystalline skeleton, so black that it seemed to suck the light, staring blindly into the depths of him.
"Yes sir," he says, "I can imagine."
That night Merrick lies on his bed, in the apartment they rent for him, and stares up at the ceiling.
On the bedside table is a plate and on the plate are his pills: blue, purple, chequered green. He wonders what his mind must be like. What state is it in? He thinks back to his training, and the things they showed him then; the secrets they revealed. He remembers the first trip into the desert. The footage they showed him from the real moon landing, the one in '68. The day they pumped him full of mescaline and left him in an isolation tank for nine hours. But he hardly remembers his life before the job. It's hard to recall the town where he grew up. It's difficult to recollect his parents' faces.
Merrick wonders if they're still alive. He wonders what the pills do; what the pills are doing to him. After a while he takes them anyway: without water, one by one.
Questions: he has so many unasked questions. Like, where do all those crashed ships go, and how come they haven't managed to reverse-engineer even one? Like, why do the Greys keep coming, when they achieve nothing, know nothing, crash so invariably? Like if all of these aliens are so envious of his way of life, as he's told, why don't they just imitate it? Or take over? Or try something other than crashing their spaceships over and over in the desert?
Like, how can species that have gained the capacity for interstellar travel be so goddamned dumb?
Unasked questions. Unaskable. And now, after today, Merrick has one more.
For didn't he see—just as he was about to leave, just for an instant—the Nameless Superior's teeth wriggle in his head? His hair flick of its own accord?
Yeah, maybe he did. Maybe he did.
©2016 by David Tallerman
DAVID TALLERMAN is the author of the comic fantasy novel series The Tales of Easie Damasco, graphic novel Endangered Weapon B: Mechanimal Science, Tor.com novella Patchwerk and the recently released The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories, a collection of pulp-styled horror and dark fantasy fiction.
David's short fantasy, science fiction, horror and crime stories have appeared or are due in around eighty markets, including Clarkesworld, Nightmare, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. David can be found online at davidtallerman.co.uk.