Here’s a short story of mine — free to you!
The Road to Russellville
By Gryffyd Eamonn Dempsey
Anyone wanting to enter the Alien Landing Zone agreed to wear a camera built into his or her suit helmet. If they resented the imposition, they were free to disable or sabotage it once inside, but when they returned to Federal territory and didn’t have the requisite terabytes of video to hand over, good luck ever getting back into the ALZ.
Almost everybody kept their hands off their camera once inside, and predictably, there accumulated the vast archives of ALZ footage. Dominating this material are sustained features of nonsense and banality, thousands upon thousands of hours of mineshafts, wrecked alien spaceships, men and women slowly going insane, eerie footage of a distant horizon filmed by someone standing perfectly still for seven hours straight. Beautiful and sad sunsets and sunrises gleam through the volcanic fog, mixed with grainy images of a trailer corner where the helmet had been dropped while its occupant got some sleep between filming the sun. Some of the footage is of moderate interest, and well known to researchers and authors of monographs, and proof of how useless is moderation. Rarer yet are a few clips showing any meaningful interaction with the aliens, familiar to most of the viewing public, all from the very first stages of human exploration of the ALZ. And then there is what the camera assigned to A. Stapleton, Mining Permit No. 13AC198N, recorded one particular day, now reproduced in endless iterations, edited according to the whim or political bias of the editor.
Up until a point that video, unedited, is of normal inanity and ennui, but the moment that most experts consider the beginning of the beginning is bookmarked and so most viewers skip to that point, if their copy has not already begun there. Most editions of the film, such as this one, begin exactly there, with the camera showing the view from its perspective as mounted on the helmet of an empty suit, resting on a shelf.
Anna crossed the field of vision. The camera tracked the motion. She stopped at a wall and what she saw was off-camera but enthusiasts have zoomed in on the reflections of her irises and added the images captured there as a sidebar to the main footage produced by the helmet cam. Anna wore her light hair tied behind her neck, and her face was thin and strained.
Anna wiped at the grime on the reinforced glass of the trailer window. She peered past her stained, stretched fingers, through the scratched material. The sidebar showed a figure in a protective suit as it stood in the dust of the crater floor and that should have been her husband, Frank, and no other. There was another figure out there, and Anna’s expression changed to a puzzled frown. The other person held one arm of Frank’s suit and with the other hand pushed at his helmet, dirty white glove scraping against Frank’s faceplate. All Anna could see of her husband was a brief gleam from his eyes past the glove and faceplate as he turned into the glare from the floodlight mounted on the trailer. The other suited figure now had its back to her and the camera showed the red and blue emblem of the Kirkpatrick clan painted over the oxygen pack.
In the main view, Anna turned from the wall and rushed toward the suit. The simultaneous view of the feed from her irises disorientated most viewers and almost all editors by default switched it off just at the point where she turned away from the wall. She walked fast across the room toward the viewer and stopped just to the side of the helmet, then turned and stepped backwards into the suit boots, one foot at a time. As she leaned back into the suit it swung shut around her torso, pushing her arms past the joint bearings and into the gloves at the extremities. The suit sealed and the next few seconds of video showed scrambled impressions as she grabbed at the helmet with suddenly enormous fingers, then the helmet was in place and the camera moved with her head’s motion, jerkiness dampened by software and mount. The view was straight ahead, as Anna walked toward the wall and turned to look out the window again then moved past it to the door.
The pair continued their slow pirouette as the window moved out of view. Anna reached out and undogged the first latch on the airlock, her head dipping to follow her hand’s movement. A gauge’s digital readout showed numbers falling rapidly as air began to vent out of valves on the far side of the door, clearing out the poisonous atmosphere let in when Frank had exited the trailer. The airlock beeped and she slapped the next latch and shreds of cloth tied to a bolt showed a breeze as interior air whooshed in through vents in the door and began to fill the airlock. When the pressure equalized, the door clicked and swung open toward her and she stepped through the opening.
Anna swung to face the airlock door as it closed. The panel of lights above it glowed green when she slapped at the last latch with a gloved hand. The door hissed as it sealed. Air started venting back into the trailer. Anna turned and looked out the scratched window of the outer airlock door. The floodlit plain in front shone, suddenly dazzling, and the view wobbled as she bumped her faceplate into the door, trying to peer around the glare. The camera inside her helmet showed the display on the inside of the helmet faceplate that indicated the near vacuum in the airlock. An arrow began flashing as the vents began sucking in air from the outside. Small eddies of sand swirled around the airlock window.
The outer door of the airlock popped open and she stepped out onto the dusty crater floor. The Kirkpatrick’s three-wheeler bounced along the rough track leading to the crater wall. In the plastic bubble cargo bed of the vehicle she saw Frank, jostled from side to side, arms stretched as if trying to reach back to her. The Kirkpatrick had somehow twisted off Frank’s helmet before imprisoning him, and a section of the video can be magnified to show how her husband’s mouth opened as he roared, no sound coming to the camera’s sound recorders through the thick plastic, past the rumble of the three-wheeler, over the sound of Anna shouting through the glass of her faceplate.
Anna ran in a clumsy shuffle, the view ahead shaking, across the crater floor that was the front yard in front of their trailer. Before her, toward the center of the crater, was the headframe she and Frank had erected over the mine’s entrance. The frame threw its skeletal shadow across the crater floor toward the far sidewall. There lay the way cut through the wall for traffic and the Kirkpatrick’s wheeler reached the track and tilted upward as she stepped onto their own three-wheeler. Anna slid into the driver’s seat and engaged the diesel motor, the vehicle shaking as it lurched against the loose soil of the crater floor, tires digging in and finally propelling her forward toward the wall. Her headlights swung over onto the smooth, compacted soil of the track and the Kirkpatrick’s wheeler tottered at the top of the wall and then dipped down the far side, out of sight. The camera’s focus remained on that gap in the cliff.
In her turn, Anna neared the rimrock of her crater. The monstrous heat of the crashing alien spaceship had melted the basalt of the region, twisting it into unearthly poses, nightmarish faults cast into the rock. Anna kept her helmet lights on the cleft in the rim that marked the road, beams swirling in dusty poisonous fog. The curator of this particular cut of her film had spliced in some earlier footage taken by Anna on a return from a voyage beyond the crater, as if to remind the viewer that behind her now, if she had looked, she would have seen their small trailer and the dot of the mine in the immensity of the crater, and the slag and slickens from her and Frank’s efforts to tunnel down to the crashed and buried ship, a treasure submerged beneath the earth like a suicidal exotic terrane. For this was the Alien Landing Zone, dotted with hundreds of crash sites, each assiduously worked now or in the recent past by other humans intent on unearthing the cargo of the ships, dreaming of smashed holds full of Standard Galactic coins.
The plain ahead was a fog-shrouded malpais, shattered and distorted by the fleet of crashed ships. The track from inside the Stapleton’s crater led down the outer slope then joined the larger road that served the courses to the various mines in this part of the ALZ. The Kirkpatrick’s wheeler was still visible, throwing up a tail of dust that showed in the lights from Anna’s helmet and wheeler. The Kirkpatrick was on the road to Russellville.
The sidebar flashed graphs, archived footages from other miners, studio interviews, all to the effect of: Used to be that men went often to Russellville. Driving their three-wheelers carefully along the graded road, feeling wealthy dreaming of the bounty of this new alien money economy, willing fetishists of as-yet-unknown commodities, knowing only that they possessed the coin of the new realm. The coins were stacked in cylinders; they snapped together in that configuration of their own accord. Cargo holds full of such gleaming cylinders sat on wheelers lined up along this packed dirt road, now empty save for Anna chasing the dust trail of the Kirkpatrick.
In the cab of Anna’s own wheeler there was a leather pouch tied to a shift lever, visible when she lowered her head to look at a gauge or change gears. Inside the pouch was a short cylinder of the alien coins, carried as travelling money, just in case, because alien money felt like it should be carried, though no one knew where to spend it. The scene cut away from the road to a montage of short paeans to alien coins, how you wouldn’t use it in a vending machine for fear of what it would dispense and other cautions and celebrations of the currency. Each side of the coin was blank and smooth, yet when you flipped one into the air you felt every time as if something had been decided.
Every coin told you of its multiple guarantees, that an ounce of it would buy a top quality spacesuit anywhere such suits were sold and at any time, always had, always would. The coins might be as abstracted from reality as a North Korean won note, but Andrew Jackson would have valued one more highly even than a gold dollar coin with his own profile on it. They annulled all debts. They paid no poll tax. This was not money you could lose or gamble away. It knew no inflation or deflation, and was the ultimate in hard money yet underwrote the most sophisticated intergalactic credit transactions. They were fungible across all boundaries of species, races, planets, habitats, ideologies, dimensions, and life forms of the known universe.
And yet the aliens would not take them from humans as payment for anything. So no one went to Russellville anymore, though humans still worked their claims in the crash sites of the ALZ, selling the coins to other humans hoping for a sea change or hoarding them to take advantage of that longed-for change themselves. And here Anna was following a Kirkpatrick to the alien city, a bag of alien coins swaying from the shift lever as if the coins felt they were her last, best hope.
This edition of Anna Stapleton’s last footage contains here a cut away from the main film. The insert is a montage of shots interior to the Stapleton’s trailer: the unmade bed, sagging sofa, filthy refrigerator, cramped commode. The editor had interspersed each sequence with a series of title cards that read, in order: “Because the alien coins had proved so worthless/ Anna had decided once, long ago to make/ Something useful of them/ In the end it was no more than a parlor trick/ She had learned, even with the thick gloves of her suit/ To hold a coin between thumb and middle finger and/ Snapping them, send the coin flying straight away from her/ at considerable speed/ It had enlivened life in the double-wide/ As she and Frank sat, weary after their futile shifts/ Contemplating pulling up their stake but having bet too much to do so.”
The road crossed the last track leading towards a claim in this district of crash sites, and continued into the center of the ALZ towards Russellville, dipping down out of sight of the camera into a ditch. The dust cloud of the Kirkpatrick’s wheeler stretched out above this, and as Anna passed the crossroads the road slid down a slope and between gully walls the other wheeler came into view again.
“What have you gone and done, Frank?” Anna said aloud, the first noise, besides her breathing, she had made since the beginning of this particular recording. Text popped up in another sidebar, explaining the lack of any evidence of a feud between Anna or Frank and the Kirkpatrick clan. Numerous Venn diagrams of interactions between the participants exist and further confirm no entanglements remotely significant enough to have caused this act of kidnap.
Anna switched the radio toggle with her chin and the heads-up, displayed in a corner of the video image, showed the channel the Kirkpatrick had open. She synced with that frequency.
“Kirkpatrick,” she said. “Stop your vehicle.” The three-wheeler didn’t slow. “Release my husband.” Nothing happened, except the icon on the heads-up showing the Kirkpatrick frequency winked off.
All Anna apparently could do was follow after, and so she pressed on the accelerator and shifted gears and the three-wheeler bounced over old ruts down the road. She and the viewer had not long to wait until the road surface underneath rose steadily up from the ditch and then from the surrounding land and formed the long causeway that led into Russellville. To either side now stretched the marshes into which drained groundwater poisoned by the alien crashes. All the soil in the ALZ was contaminated, the air poisonous, the water corrosive and fatal. A breeze rippled the surface of the marsh, a flat expanse broken by dead trees. The water had no algal hue mixed with its oily sheen.
The causeway crossed a sandbank the other side of which lurked a lagoon of dead water. Built in it, just above its waterline, was the alien floating city. The crumbled remains of the human town of Russellville formed the lagoon’s shore and bed. The water was still and suddenly glinted like liquid metal poison as the sun rose over the slope she had left behind her. The sun’s rays groped, red and weak, through the dust and fog of the wrecked land.
The wheeler rumbled onto the causeway. Anna was jolted into the restraints bracing her suit against the vehicle’s chassis and the view frame shook. The smooth surface hummed beneath as she straightened out her path, keeping the Kirkpatrick’s wheeler straight ahead. The dawn light made the wheeler’s cargo bay glow but it was too far away for to see if Frank was standing and fighting or slumped and dead, even examined at maximum magnification by archivists poring over the digital images.
“What are you doing?” Anna asked aloud, but apparently the Kirkpatrick still had its radio shut down. Her wheeler reached the end of the causeway and rumbled over the lip of the road into the alien town proper. The layout was almost as flat as the surrounding lagoon. Long, low buildings grouped into a warehouse district. The buildings were built of local basalt, and from a distance looked like a thick grey shadow on the ground. Beyond the lagoon lay the alien landing field, distinct from the Alien Landing Zone with its graveyard of crashes. A market of some sort operated in the alien town, with constant landings and takeoffs of alien spacecraft audible to the miners. Human observation satellites often showed streams of traffic to and from these buildings and the landing field but the presence of humans in Russellville instantly quelled commerce and ground-level footage of ships or other conveyances was rare. It was a market that was useless to humans, who had no coin acceptable to the alien merchants.
The road from the causeway led straight between rows of warehouses. There was as usual no sign of the alien occupants. A helpful overlay displayed the underground warrens where the aliens presumably spent most of their time when humans came to town, and whose tunnels led from Russellville basements to their spaceport. Human humiliation and pride kept the town thoroughly mapped and probed, with all the necessary levels of misplaced expertise and false explanations necessary to an archeological dig. One of the reasons for this video’s popularity was that this excursion into the town made more sense than any previous human pilgrimage to the unyielding aliens; at least there was a point to her being there, and a possibility, among those convinced even recorded media can alter their endings, that she would not leave empty-handed.
In front of Anna the road was clean, as if swept every day. The side streets between the low buildings appeared to be as tidy, as seen when Anna turned her head from side to side, as if expecting an ambush. The aliens did not leave out garbage to attract vermin. There were no piles of dead leaves. There was no dust to leave wheeler tracks to follow, but the Kirkpatrick was still visible in the view up ahead. Her husband’s abductor had not brought him to Russellville to go exploring. He was heading straight through town, to the only building familiar to humans. The Kirkpatrick was driving toward the emporium, site of human longing and despair.
What the emporium sold, no one knew, explained a caption, superfluously. The alien vendors showed no product without prior proof of ability to pay. When men and women had first dug up crashed spaceships and understood what the coins were (for the coins told them themselves) they imagined themselves to be rich and prepared for a shopping spree. But aliens apparently considered the fungibility of their coins nil once they became a treasure trove or handled by humans.
The view then was still as if Anna had been made immobile by the thought of alien obstinacy. The sky overhead was the color of butter scraped on toast. The road bent slightly north and the rising sun sent the low buildings’ lower shadows angling across the path. In the distance another cloud loomed, layered up against the heavens like it was bottled. It was greyer and reached down to the horizon, where years before the power plant of a crashed ship had tunneled through the Earth’s crust into the mantle, releasing a lava flow that was remaking the landscape. This side of that hole in the Earth was the alien spaceport. To either side the warehouses stretched away from the camera’s viewpoint but ahead were no more buildings. The lagoon continued on past the edge of town but there was no bridge or pathway for the wheeler to cross it. The road turned to the right here and led to a flat square of pounded ground between the last row of buildings and the lagoon.
That square was the emporium. A shed had been erected here, a forlorn hope for humans hoping to trade. And standing at the window of the shed was the Kirkpatrick. The bubble of his wheeler had been lifted up, showing empty cargo. It looked for all the world as if the Kirkpatrick had succeeded in some transaction yet beyond the ken of fellow humans. The Kirkpatrick stood in its suit, and held in both hands a black stick that it pointed at Anna and suddenly the view rolled and the sky careened, the wheeler burst into flames, tires bouncing off the disintegrating frame, axles jouncing off the walls of the buildings behind.
The view stabilized as Anna scrambled backwards, looking down at her feet as she ducked her head against more fire from the Kirkpatrick’s weapon, boots kicking at the road surface and glove clawing her way back behind the cover of the nearest wall. Something hit it, it cracked, and fragments of basalt smacked against her helmet and scratched the faceplate. The camera remained functioning as Anna crawled backwards, keeping the wall at her side, as if expecting to see the Kirkpatrick step around the corner at any moment and level that disastrous weapon again. The bag of coins once tied to the wheeler’s gearshift bounced to the ground near her and a few coins spilled out onto the roadway.
The standard edition of the film changed now to further historical footage. Viewers expecting an alien emporium to look like a Mitteleuropean kiosk or Main Street department store were to be disappointed, as the inserted stock footage of various retail establishments demonstrated. Video of the first hopeful caravans to the emporium followed. A still photograph, the only reliable method of recording alien images, showed a shadow wreathed in black smoke behind two inches of metalized glass. Its words showed as symbols fading in and out of sight between itself and the glass, as if they were bobbing up from a deep, dark well.
This curator was more concerned with his or her take on Anna, however, and spared viewers endless photo analysis of poor images of the aliens, tracing in their limbs taut like carbon fiber some essence of import for humans, or scrutiny of the architectural meaning of the emporium.
The scene remained with Anna as she flicked the coin and its beveled edge spun and was suddenly flying through the air like a sharpened English penny thrown into the opposing fans’ end by a football hooligan. The coin hit the Kirkpatrick’s faceplate and some curators splice in footage of the reflection off that surface so that the viewer sees Anna lying on the ground, motionless but for a flicker of her fingers. Slow-motion film highlights the spinning disk and on impact a fretwork of cracks distorts the view.
This curator eschewed that angle and kept the viewpoint that of Anna’s as she scrambled back to her feet and carefully approached the prone figure of the Kirkpatrick. The cracked faceplate moved into the view and Anna’s boot intruded as she stepped on the glass and her heel pushed through and ground against the Kirkpatrick’s face. The audio picked up ragged breathing and gagging as Anna turned away.
Our curator believed this story is now well told. Other editions showed the usual footage of Anna fruitlessly searching Russellville for an alien with which to exchange this weapon for her husband. Instead, here there was a quick jump back in time to the close-up of the Kirkpatrick and subtitles as the dying lips moved. Most videos then showed Anna shouting, “I’m coming back, Frank! Wait for me! I’ve got to go make more money to get you back!” All showed her turning the black stick on the still figure of the Kirkpatrick and vaporizing its head with a flash.
This video ended with one of those title cards of which our curator seemed so fond, stating that some time after these events, Anna Stapleton, Mining Permit No. 13AC198N, was taken into Federal custody and charged with destroying the video unit of J. Kirkpatrick, Mining Permit No. 72BX199F, expired. No footage of the trial is known to exist, but most enthusiasts imagined that the proceedings could be little more than a procession of one irate government lawyer after another asking Stapleton why she had fried the only instructions they had for trading human beings for alien technology in Russellville. And her only answer: “The Kirkpatrick told me about the inflation.”
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