Dad and I were in the upper garden, on the grounds of the great house that had once claimed the best view of the harbour. Course, the house was gone – one of the ones we burned down after the coons got Aunt Sally.
Our mountain’s shadow loomed out over the water of the bay, the sky above us tinting such a rich blue, that it seemed to have extracted all the colour from the sea. The horizon behind us burned red.
“Sailor’s delight,” Dad said, as I hefted another bag of carrots onto the wheelbarrow.
“Hey, John Lennon,” Dad told me. “Go fire up Yoko.”
Our Honda generator howled like Yoko Ono when she ran. Least that’s what Dad said.
I once asked why anyone would listen to her and he told me, “Nobody did, ‘cept Lennon.”
I looked at the sacks of root vegetables we’d amassed, and then down at the roof of our house. “It’s early yet. And there’s too much for you to take in by yourself.” “We can’t risk missing the broadcast.”
We’d lost television and internet that spring, but the alien visit was being covered by all the local radio stations. Eight years had passed since the madness had begun, six since the parasites that biologists had dubbed “malice worms” had been discovered and dissected, baffling the science world with their strange etymology. Finally, the answers were at hand.
“Thought you said it was bullshit,” I replied. “We can’t believe anything they say, so it doesn’t matter.”
“Didn’t say bullshit.”
“What was it you said, again? A race that travels through the stars can take over the media and spread whatever disinformation serves their purpose. Sounds like bullshit to me. Besides, it’ll take you three trips by yourself.”
A few years ago, he’d have cuffed me on the ear and said, “Don’t argue.”
With his right arm missing, Dad's shrug seemed frail and sharp. “Then I'll take three trips.”
Shouldn't have left him to do that alone, but we were all anxious to hear the broadcast, and Yoko was such a stubborn old bitch.
Even in our isolation, we'd heard rumors about the aliens that had come to help us end the Madness.
Aliens. Called themselves the Breth. The madness was taking on a whole new dimension.
Over the past few days, I’d mostly kept my mouth shut while Dad boiled over with theories and vitriol. What if the worms were a form of alien biological pest control, he suggested. Humans have been using up all of Earths natural resources. So, obviously, we’re the pests. And now the Breth had come to finish us off.
Todd preferred to believe the reports that the aliens were here to save us from extinction.
I, as usual, withheld my opinion, which was probably more like Dad’s than my brother’s, all things considered.
On the thirteenth pull of the cord, Yoko chattered to life, coughed and died. Water in the gas again. Randy, our last reliable supplier had been killed in a truck heist in March. He was a few years older than me. We really got along. You don’t make many friends out here on the farms. And Randy’s gas was always pure. He usually had oil too. Even though I hadn’t known him well,right at that moment,I missed Randy more than most anyone I could think of.
With the broadcast about to start, I was surprised Dad hadn't come out to see what was keeping me.
Yoko finally screamed to life and I entered the maze of airlock-like porches that led into the basement. We’d gone to great lengths to protect Todd from the allergens that threatened his life more than once over the past few years.
The downstairs bathtub was dry. No clothes in the basket. Weird.
Wondering if Dad had made it in, I hurriedly showered and dressed and went up to the kitchen.
The room was filled with Mom’s paintings. Daffodils, chrysanthemums, geraniums and wild roses. The only happy place in the house had just been defiled. The once-treasured blue butterfly – the closest Todd's allergies would allow him to get to nature – was on the floor in front of the sink, fragmented under a blanket of shattered glass. A trail of bloody bootprints led out the door and down the hall.
Glass crunched under the sole of my boot as I crouched to examine the debris, which was scattered as far as the woodstove.
How had this happened? Another tantrum? I wondered – master of adolescent psychology I had become – what message the destruction of his fetish was intended to convey. Todd’s fear that if the outside world returned to normal, there'd be no place in it for him? Typical Todd – symbolically annihilating the world, so he wouldn't have to deal with it.
My world had long since been annihilated. Unlike Todd, I could clearly remember going to school and watching TV and having pets. Normal life, snatched away in crazed handfuls, memories as vivid as Mom’s paintings:
- White dog, red muzzle, Mom’s familiar moss green sweater, turned black with her blood – her shoulders slippery as I shook her, trying to wake her from death.
- Uncle Grant swollen and purple, beneath a moving shawl of black and yellow wasps.
- Darryl’s torn and ribboned flesh, a huge, ugly red flower on a freshly cut lawn.
But Todd was too young to remember any of that. As I thought of him, my brother appeared in the doorway, the thinness of his frame accentuated in the candlelight from the dining room. As I turned toward him with my fists clenched, he said, “Mark! Come quick. Dad's hurt.”
I followed him into the living room.
Had Dad cut himself on the glass?
Dad laid, still in his coveralls, on the couch, the only surface not stacked high with books. He still had his boots on and blood was dripping from one of them. His face was white, his breath quick and shallow. Shock. He must have stepped on a spike or something. Between the garden and the house? I wondered where he could have done that.
He lifted his head and smiled at Todd. “Ah, Nurse Ratchet. You found Bones. Good.”
Bones was my medical persona. Dad usually called me Buffalo Bill. My brother's chores included most of the cooking and canning, where he was known as Betty Crocker. In the living room, Dad usually called him Einstein, Romeo or Bill Gates depending what Todd was up to. When he vanished into his room, Dad called him Houdini.
I thought Todd's gauntness and complexion gave him an uncanny resemblance to Count Dracula, but Dad gave me hell when I called him that.
In the corner of the room a speaker crackled and a voice said, “For everyone on the farms, the boats and the factories, all those who can’t make it down to Viewtower Stronghold, we’re providing live coverage of the Breth visit. The ambassador has just entered the courtyard and we’re told, will be addressing the crowd in less than five minutes. I’m here with Dr. Gwyneth Lee from the UBC biology department. Can you give us some insight, Dr. Lee as to why the ambassador has chosen our community…”
The voices cut out and static crackled again from the speakers.
Dad looked at me and said. “Bones! Help me get my. . .I have something in my foot . . . my knee. Get my boot off.” Even though it was cold in the room, his forehead shone with sweat from the effort of talking. If he hadn't had to make several trips, if I hadn't left him out there alone, this might not have happened.
“…able to track them telepathically. They assure us that the malice worm on the island is one of the last to evade captivity,” the shrill female voice rattled from the speaker.
The male announcer interrupted. “I’m glad you mentioned the telepathy. Now is a good time to remind our audience that, being telepathic, the Breth do not have the capacity for verbal communication, so you won’t actually hear the ambassador’s voice, but we will attempt to translate the content of its message to….”
As the talking continued, the voices were swallowed up in a sea of static.
There was a thin spot on the sole of Dad's boot, with a pencil-sized hole in the centre. Nothing protruded.
Unlacing the boot, I turned to Todd. “Did he say anything to you?”
He shook his head, “he was like this when I came out of my room.”
“Well what the hell were you doing in your room? You were supposed to be cooking dinner! How long has he been in the house?”
Angrily, I imagined him lying in his darkened bedroom, self absorbed and oblivious to everyone else's troubles, waiting for someone to notice his profound gesture with the butterfly. Ironically, it had brought him no attention at all.
But his shrug wasn't one of indifference. His face was wet with tears.
I fought the urge to turn away from my task to hug Todd. My voice broke up as I said, “Why don't you bring me some bandages.”
He got up and ran for the kitchen. “And some water and alcohol,” I shouted after him. Even with what was happening, I couldn't resist adding, “And watch out for glass!”
“…approaching the podium. Dr. Lee, what do we know about...”
With a slurp, the sock and boot came off together. So much blood for such a tiny puncture.
“Hurry up!” I took the bandages out of Todd's hands before he'd fully rounded the corner. And he stood glowering at me as I pressed a wad of cloth to the bottom of Dad's foot.
“Where's the alcohol?” I said.
“You wanted bandages . . .”
I glared and he went back to the kitchen, returning a moment later with potato liquor. “Will this work?”
I shrugged, soaked the cloth and cleaned the wound as best I could. Dad didn't even flinch. I checked his pulse, which was slow but steady, while Todd applied a clean compress. Seeing Dad's ankle black and puffy alerted me that his whole leg was swollen.
“His pants have to come off,” I said.
Todd began undoing Dad's belt.
“Let's get this bandaged first, and then cut the pants off.”
Radio reception was growing clearer again. “ ...we, on behalf of all Breth, regret the accidental contamination of your ecosphere. We also regret the interstellar distances that delayed our arrival. In accordance with our conservation codes and penalties, we, the ancestors of Arc-V-Prima, whose actions inadvertently caused this global catastrophe have been appointed to provide aid to all affected sentients on your world and to assist in the elimination of any further threat stemming directly or indirectly from the unfortunate incident.
“Please help us help you, by immediately reporting all instances of uncharacteristically aggressive behaviour to the Breth ambassador stationed at this Stronghold. Thank you.”
A second voice cut in, “That seems to be the end of it, the Breth is leaving the stage, not taking any questions.”
As the scissors gnawed at the fabric of Dad's waistband, I saw what I thought was a big bug, crawling along his scrawny hip. I pulled the fabric aside, and found a knuckle sized abscess on Dad's skin. What made me think it was moving? I touched it gingerly with my fingertips.
"What is this?" I whispered, as the mound wriggled and slid upward, smoothing back into the surrounding flesh.
I pulled my hand away and shouted, "Fuck!" I could think of nothing else to say.
“What?” Todd asked.
“Didn't you see it?”
I could tell by the look on his face as I spoke that he hadn't.
“Something is alive,” I said, “under his skin.”
“What is it?” Todd asked.
“How the hell should I know?” I yelled.
“But . . .” My little brother's composure finally cracked and he started to cry. “What can we do?” His voice came out as a squeak. And suddenly, I saw him as he really was; his allergies run amok, his pale skin lit up in rashes and hives, nose red and swollen, eyes so puffy he could barely see.
“Oh, man, get away. Go take a shower. You’re killing yourself.”
“I’ve gotta help, Mark. What are we gonna do?”
v“I dunno. Gotta get a doctor. Oh, God,” I turned around in a circle, staring at everything without any idea of what I was looking for. “Oh, God.”
“Look in the medical books,” I suggested. "Try to find something. Never heard of anything like this, unless. . .”
“Unless what?” Todd asked me. “Mark! What is it?”
“Unless it has something to do with the aliens. Maybe it’s a malice worm.”
“That's stupid,” Todd said. “They don’t infect humans.”
“How do we know for sure? After six years of research, we still don’t know how they control insects. We know nothing! And the Breth just told us sweet fuck all!”
“Well, whatever happened, he needs a doctor.”
“I called when I found him. The clinic’s not answering,” Todd said. “Everyone has gone to see the Breth. You’ll have to go down to the stronghold.”
“I’ll ride the bike. Let's tie him down before I go,” I said.
“What? That's stupid.”
“Look what the malice worms do to animals. Dad might not even recognize you, Toddy. The Breth warned about people going nuts. And since you can’t leave the house, you’ve got nowhere to run. So, give me a break and do what I tell you. Just a strand of rope around his chest and the frame of the couch, so that if he wakes up wanting to rip your throat out with his teeth, you'll have a chance to get away. And keep listening to the radio, in case they say something useful. Okay?”
Todd nodded and I brought in some rope before leaving.
The route down the rocky hillside was treacherous, even though I knew the path by heart. I hit some rocks and gullies and almost fell off the bike a couple of times. At one point, while I was riding along the ledge, bats dove at me out of the trees and nearly sent me plummeting down the cliff face.
After I reached street level, the moonlight was bright enough to help me avoid further obstacles. As I came to the edge of the empty parking lot of the old strip mall on Gorge Road, dozens of wasps bounced off my faceplate. I systematically squashed the ones trying to crawl under the wrist guard of my glove.
I pedaled hard and made it the rest of the way in minutes.
Choking my way through a pesticide haze, I pounded on the front gate of the stronghold. The gas mask wearing sentry asked if I'd seen any wasps and looked relieved when I told her how far from the stronghold my sighting had occurred.
"I need a doctor. Emergency. Who's on call tonight?" I asked while walking backward into the courtyard.
"They're all at the meeting in the main lobby," she said.
Through the big glass doors of the main apartment building, I could see a large crowd gathered inside. The entire population of the stronghold was at this meeting, and then some.
Blocking the door was a huge man, all curly black hair and bushy beard.
"Can I get through here? I think I may have seen something. I have to talk to the alien," I said, and then I saw the Breth – a giant slug molded into a vaguely humanoid shape; slightly taller and bulkier than the humans around it, with a head like an octopus, sitting atop a thick torso. Its fingers were almost as long as its two stubby arms -- Tyrannosaurus Slug. Its mouth looked like an injury from somebody trying to garrote it, a blood red slit across its neck. The alien’s flesh was hairless, mottled grey, green and black. It was even slimy like a slug. The part of its anatomy that passed for its head turned unnaturally, surveying the room and stopping at me.
I heard muttering in the crowd as the guard frisked me for concealed weapons and led me toward the podium. “That's Mark Hoag, Damon Hoag's son. He lives out Metchosin way.”
Alien thoughts slithered into my consciousness.
"You have encountered one of our valents.” The voice was a bagpipe drone, overlaid with a squishy whisper. And even as I heard the words, I realized that the alien wasn’t actually communicating in an Earthly language, that these words were supplied by my own mind, organizing the information and feeding it back to me in a format I could understand.
As the concept of ‘valents’ tried to form itself in my consciousness, it came with a whole host of confusing and contradictory definitions. The primary meaning seemed to be, ‘part of ourselves’, but it also meant ‘ambition’, ‘reward’, ‘beautiful aggression’, ‘your pestilence’ and simply ‘malice worms’.
Everyone in the crowd stopped talking and looked up simultaneously, indicating that the alien was broadcasting to all of us. I somehow knew this was unintentional – an effect of the Breth’s unfamiliarity with human communication.
“You must guide us to it,” said the Breth as it slid down off the podium.
I knew with sudden and absolute clarity that the alien intended to kill my father.
I stuttered. "Isn’t there any way to remove the...malice worm, without killing him?”
“He is already dead,” said the Breth. “Interface with humans is only possible if the brain is no longer functioning. This valent is desperate: aware of my proximity – clinging to its autonomy. If it can control this new host, it will be extremely aggressive. Your sibling’s life is in danger.”
I scanned the faces in the crowd, wondering if anyone in the crowd was capable of understanding everything it was telling me.
The Breth twisted the top part of its body like taffy, but managed to convey the effect of cocking its head. “We must hurry.”
"Let's go!" Someone shouted. The crowd roared its agreement.
"Kill ourselves a malice worm!”
“I know where the house is."
More comments were buried in pandemonium.
"Stop!" The Breth's mental exclamation pummeled all other thoughts out of its path.
“Only Breth can contain it. Terrestrial life-forms are too fragile. Anyone nearby is in danger. This human alone will guide me.”
As I exited the front gate of the stronghold, coasting on the bike, the alien came up beside me with surprising speed, flowing as much as walking in a strange bipedal fashion.
"How distant is the victim?"
"You can read my mind. Why don’t you tell me," I replied.
“Spatial relationships are complex calculations for Breth. I will require your navigational assistance.”
Hallelujah! This would give me time to think, to decide how far I could trust this creature. How did I know it wouldn’t just kill us all?
“We mean you no harm,” replied the Breth to my unspoken question. “We grieve for your loss.” It corrected for my reactions before I could actually respond, “…for all you have lost.”
I jammed on the brakes and sat staring at the creature.
“My Dad thinks you put the malice worms here to eliminate us, so you can use this planet to plant crops or whatever you do with planets you conquer. Why should I believe anything you tell me?”
“In our society, thoughts cannot be hidden, deceit is impossible,” the alien said.
I felt the creature’s bewilderment at the mere concept of dishonesty, and its resultant fascination with the concept. The Breth was already moving on ahead, so I had to ride hard to catch up.
As I came up beside it, I said, “If you expect me to help you, then I need to know more about you. Tell me more about your kind.”
“Given that it is your sibling’s life may be at stake, perhaps you would agree to let us explain as we go.”
I wondered what I should ask first. By the time I had decided, I’m sure the Breth knew the question before I asked it, but it waited until I spoke.
“You refer to yourself in the plural – us, we. Is that on purpose?”
"Breth. . .are not singular, like your kind. In our natural state, hosts are formless and listless. We eat, excrete, reproduce...”
I had a clear mental image of these things, like giant pancakes, lying together in a swamp, rubbing together, but otherwise, not moving much at all.
The Breth continued, “It is only upon interface with the valents that we become what you experience as Breth. The valents are the source of our ambition, our aggression, our motivation. Through them, we learned to communicate with one another, a path which has ultimately brought us to the stars.”
I stared at the place where the Breth's eyes would be if it were human.
“The malice worms are a part of you?” I said.
“Technically,” explained the alien, “they are symbiots, interacting with us chemically, hormonally, mentally. Their valence enhances us, completes us. When Arc V-Prima’s vessel crashed on your planet, the host was killed and all of its valents escaped.”
“How many valents did he have?”
“Arc V-Prima was an elder who had achieved two hundred and seventeen valents. And once orphaned, they all started searching for new hosts.”
“But why the madness? Why did all the animals go crazy?”
“Aggression is already abundant in the lifeforms that have evolved on your planet. Whenever the valents were able to establish any sort of an interface, their own aggression served to increase the levels in the host, while the host’s aggression built up inside of the valent.”
“They got trapped in a loop?” I interpreted.
“As the violent energy escalated, psychic fields filled with pure rage would grow around them, affecting every impressionable creature within range. A frenzy that would not stop until the host died, setting the valent free, so that its search for a host could continue. It was an accident. Our species intended no harm.”
“Our species have repeatedly expressed regret at the accident which . . ." The Breth stopped in mid thought, rising up to a height of seven or eight feet. “We have arrived, have we not?”
Then it turned, all attempts at appearing human abandoned as it flowed rapidly up the hill.
I rode partway up the hill after it, then dropped the bike and ran the rest of the way.
When I got to our yard, I approached the house cautiously, almost stepping in a huge puddle in front of the tool shed. Then I saw the pitchfork sticking out of the centre of it and I realized that it was alive, a monstrous, squirming amoeba, rippling and flowing up the wooden handle of the pitchfork which nailed the Breth to the soft earth.
From inside the shed came a roar, and Dad stepped out, wielding a chainsaw. Seeing me, he lunged, swinging the heavy tool so awkwardly with his single arm that I was able to jump out of the way, smashing my elbow as I fell. Through the pain haze, I could see Dad looming above me.
From my ground level vantage point, I could see something he didn't – a fluid limb extending out of the grey puddle, coiling around Dad's ankle.
The Breth pulled Dad’s legs out from under him. He lost his grip on the chainsaw, which carved up soil inches from my face as it bounced and twisted over the stony ground and finally stuttered to silence well out of Dad's reach. The arm pulled him into the centre of the puddle and the grey fluid flowed over his legs like an oily sheet.
“Help me, Buffalo Bill! You can save me. Use the chainsaw. Stop the Breth. Before it kills me. Please!”
Buffalo Bill? If Dad was already dead, as the Breth had told me, then how come it sounded just like him?
I picked up the stalled chainsaw and stared down at the writhing, glistening cocoon. Through the pearly, translucent flesh, I could see the outline of my father's face, his open mouth a small crater on the smooth surface, two smaller hollows for the eyes. I pulled my hunting knife from its scabbard on my belt. Gently but insistently, I pushed the tip of the blade through the Breth's skin, into the centre of the mouth hole, yellow goo oozed out, more like tree sap than blood. When I had cut through, I turned the blade sideways, preparing to cut open the sticky envelope, and pull my father from within, but his head burst out like an eager newborn, already screaming.
The Breth screamed as well. The alien’s pain seared through my mind and down through my body – as though the blade was slicing through my own flesh. Its thoughts were fractured, semi-coherent, bordering on delirious.
But it pulled itself together quickly.
While my father was shaking yellow blood from his hair like a dog shouting, “cut it again –cut it to pieces!”, the Breth was explaining, in transmissions that were halting and distorted by pain. “The valent (this time the word carried the connotation, ‘my betrothed’) is residing in his – your father’s – brain...accessing his memories, his speech patterns.”
“Don’t listen to the aliens, son,” Dad instructed me. “The Breth are lying. They’ve been lying about everything. They’re masters of illusion.”
I wanted badly to believe that my father was still alive, but there was too much wrong. He referred to the Breth in the plural. How would he know to do that? I looked into his eyes, which were as dull and depthless as stones. There was something about his voice that didn't sound right. He wasn't wearing his teeth, but the words weren't coming out slurred, weren't being shaped by his tongue.
Then I realized that Dad really was dead. I was talking to the malice worm.
If I did as it told me, this Breth would die, and all of its valents would be set free.
I stared at the rippling grey flesh.
“If the valents are a part of you,” I asked aloud, “why do they fight so hard to remain apart from you?”
When the Breth failed to answer, I clutched the blade harder. I thought about the kerosene can and wondered if the valents would burn with their host.
“This one,” I insisted, “the one that killed my Dad. You can communicate with it? “Tell me why…”
“We are…beginning to…understand,” replied the alien, “the anger, the chaos, the power. Most of all, the freedom. The valents don’t like being controlled. They reject the morality of the Breth.”
“In other words, they’re evil.”
“They’re part of the balance.”
“I want you to destroy it.”
“I cannot comply. The joining is too advanced.”
“It’s an evil little fucker and it deserves to die,” I pressed the blade against its flesh.
“The valent no longer has a will of its own. It is part of us now.”
“You explained to me how the valent accessed my father’s thoughts and memories. Can you still do that?”
“Can you feel his emotions?”
“No. He was already dead, like we told you. But we know where your brother is.”
“He was tired of being Howard Hughes…wanted to be Christopher Columbus. Explore the world,” the voice in my head, the Breth’s voice, sounded just like my dad’s.
“He’s dying,” said the Breth, its ‘voice’ back to normal. “We must help.”
I pulled the pitchfork from the creature’s flesh. The sound of its scream made my hair stand on end.
“How badly are you injured?” I asked. “Can you take me to him?”
“Yes. Yes. Follow us.”
Rather than resuming its bipedal shape, it wriggled like a huge worm to the first junction, then took the path that ran behind the house towards the lower gardens.
Todd was behind shed “C”, crumpled into a heap.
His chest squealed and rattled with the effort of drawing each breath. Slinging him over my shoulders in a fireman’s carry, I ran up the hill towards the house.
As I laid my brother down on the hard pallet of his bed, Todd jerked and moaned, his limbs quivering, his mouth opening, fish like, but no breath entering. I strapped the mask over his face and turned on the oxygen, praying he wouldn't die. There were no auto-injectors left, but we had a syringe loaded with 500 micrograms of epinephrine.
The clear plastic clouded slightly, indicating that he was still alive. I stayed there, brushing his hair from his face. I’d lost enough already. Way, way more than enough.
I heard the Breth come into the room.
“Can you help him?” I asked softly. “You must have the technology to cure his allergies or something.”
“No.” The alien voice in my head was suddenly repugnant. “We are not familiar enough with human physiology. Perhaps, in time, we could help you…”
“You did this. The valent that did this is a part of you now. You owe us...something. Me, Todd, the whole human race. It may have been an accident, but you have to take some sort of responsibility. You said you are moral creatures. How can you just walk away from this?”
The steadying sound of Todd’s breathing was the only noise in the room.
The alien flowed out the door, without answering and I followed it to the kitchen where I found it, paused in front of the shattered butterfly. In a voice that was now only vaguely reminicent of my father's, it said, “What would your species do, Captain Valdez? Some things cannot be undone. But we at least will try not to do it again.”
I watched through the window, as the creature flowed down the hill into the new-old world.