It was a slow news day, or I was being punished. Maybe a combination of both. I had no recollection of any infraction that would have gotten me assigned to cover the “Alternative League for Investigation and Explanation Needed in Science” or ALIENS expo. I got to spend the day with nutjobs in protective foil hats who believed that the government was using the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program antennas in Alaska as either a mind control weapon, hence why they needed foil hats, or that they were weather controlling devices responsible for everything from Hurricane Katrina to global warming.
The only thing newsworthy about this was the celebrity appearance of the ‘aliens’ meme guy with the questionable hair. I could never remember his name. I wasn’t told I was supposed to interview him. I hope it wasn’t expected. What would I ask him? What is like to be a meme? I had no interest in these crazy conspiracy theories that surrounded everything from crop circles and proof that the Earth was flat to the moon landing being faked and why there are 2023 Bigfoot sightings a year. Why did I even have that statistic in my head?
8-year-old me would be excited about going to this expo. At eight, when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up I would tell them a cryptozoologist. I would then have to explain it had nothing at all to do with Bigfoot but was more about researching cryptids rooted in legend and folklore like Ogopogo. The first Bigfoot sighting was in 1958, the Ogopogo could be traced back to the folklore of the First Nations of North America. It is even more fascinating that the okapi and Komodo dragon were once listed as cryptids and they turned out to be real.
My biggest disappointment was a news story about the Lake Erie Monster. Back in the 90’s a baby lake monster washed up on shore, DNA tests revealed it to be a mutant fish of some sort. All the industrial waste that has been dumped in that lake until the Clean Water Act was passed I’m not surprised. Still, someone went and taxidermized the fish and it’s sitting in a museum labeled as a lake monster.
Maybe I was the right person to send to cover the event. What gave me away?
Inside the convention center someone in a convincing Yeti costume walked into me. He apologized for not watching where he was going. When he noticed the press pass attached to lanyard around my neck and asked if his friend could take a picture of us together. Could we stage an interview? I agreed under the condition I would be sent a copy of the photo. He agreed, the picture was taken, and I handed him a business card and told him not to forget.
I approached the ticket booth and showed my press pass. I was handed a program and waved on without a word spoken. My phone vibrated in my pocket. Thinking it might be from my boss telling me to interview the meme guy, I checked my phone. It was the Yeti interview picture.
The convention center floor was covered in a flood of people. More people than I expected to come out to something like this. Some of them wore foil hats, others had metal colanders on their head. There was a male couple dressed up like Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones from Men in Black. I was standing in a cacophony of weirdness.
I don’t know what I expected, but this wasn’t it. Organizations like the Bigfoot Field Researches Organization, the International UFO Congress and the International Flat Earth Research Society had tables set up promoting their group with fliers and the kinds of free trinkets you can only get at conventions. These organizations would talk to anyone who would listen. Then there was the guy who claimed he survived a drop bear attack while in Australia. I made a mental note to go back and talk to him when there wasn’t so many people at his table.
The plastic tote bag I was handed upon the convention center floor would soon be filled with conversation starts by the end of the day, with stress balls that looked like UFOs and Mothman, pens, cryptid magnets, bumper stickers, a flat earth frisbee, and other assorted items. There was an author singing copies of their alien abduction memoir. I decided to purchase a copy as a birthday present for my brother and write it off as a business expense. His first patient as a psychology intern was a lady who was convinced she had been the subject of alien abduction. He’s never lived that down.
I also picked up an adorable stuffed jackalope from the Jackalope Preservation Society, because why not, and an illustrated children’s book for my niece. It was a cryptid fairy tale along the same vein as The Ugly Duckling starring an Ogopogo raised by fish parents. I briefly thought about buying a second copy for myself when a voice came over the loud speaking announcing the first panel would be starting in 10 minutes. I forgot that I had been carrying around a program and finally looked at it. The first panel was on alien abductions. It would be followed up by a panel on the Illuminati. There were panels talking about flat earth theories, crop circles, and how 9/11 was an inside job executed by the government. Finally the alien meme guy would talk about alien archeology and artifacts.
I followed a large group of people to the presentation stage and took a seat in the front row. The least I could do was act like I was more interested than I was and that these people were not bordering on being circus side show acts. It wasn’t that I wasn’t tolerant of beliefs outside of my own, it is just difficult to take someone seriously who is wearing a tin foil hat to protect themself from government mind control rays. Every person I talked to was able to put forth a compelling, convincing, and intelligently thought-out explanation of why they believed what they did, even if they didn’t have anything more than pseudoscience to back it up. I didn’t doubt the intelligence of these people, I just didn’t understand how they could get sucked into these conspiracy theories.
I had found my angle for covering the expo. How and why intelligent people bought into this stuff. I considered sending a text to my brother asking for his opinion as a therapist but decided against it. He probably wouldn’t take me seriously. It was best I called him on the way home. I wouldn’t tell him about the book.
While waiting for the panel to start, a conversation was taking place around me.
“Did hear about that story about the missing hikers?” The first guy asked.
“It’s all anyone is talking about.” A second guy, sitting next to him waiting for the speaker to take the stage replied. “They have been missing how long now? Two weeks? Three?”
“I think I know what happened to them.” The first guy responded.
A third person turned around in their seat to join the conversation. “No one knows what happened to them.”
“I’m telling you; I know what happened to them. I was hiking in the area last weekend with my friend, Ben, and we saw the bodies…or at least what was left of them.”
“I call bullshit!” the second guy replied. “The police have been all over that area. They’ve taken dogs out and everything and not found anything.”
“That is just what they are reporting. There is something living up in those mountains that is neither human nor animal that is killing anyone and anything going up there.” The first guy explained.
“And I suppose you seen it?” The second guy asked, his voice tinged with sarcasm.
“Ben and would go hiking every weekend. We’ve done this since high school, always somewhere different. We would make a weekend out of it. We have never been up in mountains, so we decided to go up to the mountains where the hikers disappeared and see what was up there. Now, mind you, the news has not reported precisely where the hikers disappeared, because they don’t know. No one really does. It’s not like there was someone around to report ‘the hikers disappeared where the path makes and Y next to a tree and a rock surrounded with poison ivy.’ No one has those details, and even if they did, no one would know what they were taking about. When you say someone was abducted on 3rd and Main, people know where you are talking about. Describing a place on a hiking trail doesn’t work that way.
“Anyway, Last Friday we drove up there, took our camping gear with us, like I said, this was a weekend thing. We parked the car on the roadside, loaded up with gear, and set off. I don’t know what I was expecting, since this was supposed to be a popular hiking spot, but it was unlike anywhere we’ve ever went.”
At his point in his story other people had started listening, some out of curiosity, some out of boredom.
“The first part of the trail was well worn like you would expect a hiking trail to be. We had probably hiked 10 miles when we came across this small area with a stone fire circle. It looked like others had stopped to camp there before on their hiking trips. We set up camp for the night. The sounds of nature were cacophonous. I have never experienced nature being so loud before. Birds, frogs, coyotes, bats, and who knows what else. It was all so loud. Made it hard to fall asleep.
“The sounds of the animals of the night were replaced by all new animals in the morning, and they were just as loud. Ben and I ate our lavish breakfast of granola, tore down camp, and continued up the trail. This is where things start to get weird. The further up the trail we went, the less worn down it was. There were some areas where we had trouble finding it. Also, the further we went, the fewer sounds there were. When Ben and I realized everything was silent we stopped to listen, thinking we were imagining things. When was the last time you were somewhere and didn’t hear birds? I am telling you, this forest, on the side of this mountain, was dead silent like after a snowfall, only we were somewhere it shouldn’t have that quiet. There should have been birds. There should have been squirrels or rabbits or something that you could hear scurrying away as we came near. There were no insect mating calls. We became more aware of every snap of each stick we steeped on, each rock we kicked.
“A quarter of a mile or so later the trail became well worn again, only it was more of a well-worn narrow garden path and not a hiking trail. I looked at Ben and he just shrugged. We followed the path as it winded around trees and a pond. The water was perfectly still, undisturbed by fish or insects. On the far side of the pond was a shack.
“Shack probably isn’t the right word. It had been someone’s house before nature reclaimed it. The sides of it were overtaken by vines, the door was hanging by a single hinge. A tree had fallen across the building taking out part of the roof. Right inside the door was a small kitchen. Some of the cupboard doors had fallen off the rusty hinges. Plants were breaking through the floor. The kitchen table was lopsided, having lost a leg. Everything was covered in a layer of dirt except the woodburning stove. It was clean and had been used recently. Other than the stove, there was no sign that anyone had been there.
“The adjoining room was empty except for a lone rocking chair. It reminded me of the antique rocker my grandmother passed onto my aunt. It was out of place, polished to a shine. Vines had broken through the windows and were climbing up the walls. Debris scattered the floor from broken roof. I stepped into the room to look around. Ben took a picture of the rocking chair with his phone. The air didn’t smell right. It was a mix of petrichor, rotting wood, and death.
“The back room was smaller than the other two and contained a rusted cot. A tree branch found it’s way through a broken window. There were bones from various animals scattered across the floor. If we had seen any signs of wildlife in the area I would have thought that a coyote had drug it’s kill here for safe storage by the looks of the bones that scattered the floor. Some had been there some time, others were newer and picked clean of their meat, while others were left, the meat starting to go rancid.
“The sunlight coming in from the broken window bounced of something small in the far corner, behind the cot. I walked carefully to the corner, trying to avoid everything on the floor. All I could think of was I would never get the smell out of my shoes.
“An arm was sticking out from under the cot. The sunlight was reflecting off the watch. The bodies of the hikers had been hidden there, out of sight to anyone who might glance in the room. A cell phone had fallen on the floor. As I picked it up and stuffed it in my pocket. I ran through the rocking chair room into the kitchen yelling for Ben. There was no sign of him, and he didn’t answer. I ran outside and started searching, pleading for him to stop screwing around. Still no sign of Ben. He had just vanished.
“Panic gripped me by the throat. All I knew was that I didn’t want to be anywhere near this building when night fell. I ran around the pond, every couple feet glancing in to see if there were signs of Ben, that maybe he had fallen in and drown. I could hear my heart beating in my ears and I ran down that narrow path. I heard another scream in the distance behind me and I tried to run faster but the camping gear was weighing me down. I pulled the pack off my back throwing it on the ground. I took only the essentials from the pack that I could carry in my pockets, a few protein bars and a package of granola, my knife and the flashlight. I ran, only slowing down when I finally heard a bird. I turned on the flashlight when it became dark. I had no gear, and even if I did there was no way I was going to camp in the forest.
“It was nearly midnight when I made it back to the car. I stopped at the ranger station a few miles down the road to report what happened. I was asked if I had been drinking or taking anything because there was no building anywhere in mountains. I was assured that ever inch of them had been mapped.
“I returned to my car after the ranger threatened to have me arrested and called Ben’s cell phone. I got his voice mail and hung up. The entire way home I kept looking at my phone willing it to ring. It never did.
“At home I fell asleep with my clothes on, exhausted. The first thing I did when I woke up was try and call Ben again. Once again I got his voice mail. I frantically searched my pockets, remembering I had picked up a strange cell phone. I plugged into my charger and powered it on. Its owner didn’t bother to put a lock code on it. I was hoping there was something on the phone that would give me some kind of idea what had happened to the hikers, and more importantly, prove that I wasn’t crazy. I found something all right. I have the phone with me, let me show you.”
He took the phone out of his jacket pocket and opened the photo gallery and passed the phone around.
“What the hell?” The second guy said. “I thought that was just an urban legend!”
The person sitting behind him looked over his shoulder at the picture. “My friend’s cousin’s wife went to school with someone who had seen it. He ended up going committing suicide not long afterward/”
“Do you think it took Ben? Someone else asked.
“I am sure of it.”
I restrained myself from asking to see the picture. I wanted to know what happened to Ben. I was just as invested in this story as everyone else listening.
The author, whose book on alien abductions I purchased, joined the panel on alien visitations. The Roswell alien who hugged me earlier sat down next to her and waved to the audience. I pulled out my phone and took a picture.
An hour later, just before the Q&A session, the convention center erupted in pandemonium. I had questions, a lot of questions, that would now go unanswered. A confused sense of panic and excitement filled the air. I caught pieces of stores about an alien ship from those I passed on my way out of the building. Some said it was staged for the event, others said it was real and someone had already been abducted. My reporter’s instinct kicked in. Whatever was going on had to be big to elicit chaos and I was going to be there to report it.
The ship hovered in the sky invisible the human eye. Several miles away air traffic control picked up its stationary blip on the RADAR. Procedure dictated all unidentified objects detected needed to be reported to the National UFO Reporting Center. If they deemed it something they would contact the military. The military took all UFO reports seriously as a matter of national security. The unofficial procedure of the military, circulated as a memo, explained all UFOs were, as far as the general public was concerned, was, in fact, a weather balloon.
Officially, a weather balloon hovered in the sky. However weather balloons are not designed to hover. They raise straight up until the air pressure changes enough it burst, ending its life. The official weather balloon was at such an altitude it should have burst, but it hung there, innocuous, watching.
Aboard the weather balloon, or the ship, depending on who you were and how much you cared about official, or unofficial, procedure, the strange bipedal creatures that occupied it were observing the building and its occupants below them. The people below didn’t know they were being watched or that they had been watched and studied from a distances for decades.
There was an uncontained excitement bubbling out of each of the creatures. The excitement could be felt in the air and it was orange. Not the dull orange tinted with brown of the fallen autumn leaves but the neon orange of the sun setting in the summer. Today was the day, they were finally going to bring one of the Earth people aboard the ship for closer study.
The strange bipedal creatures rushed around the ship making last minute preparations for the alien. The containment chamber needed to have the proper ratios of oxygen, nitrogen, argon, and radon. If anything went wrong the alien would die, and while an autopsy would be useful, it wasn’t part of their plan. Not yet at least. If anything went wrong any member of the retrieval crew could die, either by being exposed to the artificial, yet hostile, alien air or by the alien escaping and killing one of more of the crew before being subdued. They had their equivalent of tranquilizer darts at the ready, just in case. However, they had never been tested on the aliens and had no idea what effect they would have. It was best to make sure everything went according to plan.
To anyone unfamiliar with the species, they all looked identical. To the careful observer each one was different in some way: eyes that were slightly larger or smaller than another’s, skin a shade lighter or darker preauricular pits of varying sizes. The males had three fingers, the females four. That kind of thing. Each also had a unique voice pitch.
They spoke to each other in the language of the strange bipedal creatures. Their language could only be described as a cross between the chirping of an agitated hermit crab and the buzzing of a locus mating call. There was a cacophony of multiple voices.
“What are they doing down there?”
“Are there usually this many of them in one place?”
“Has it been decided which one we take?”
“We should take a female.”
“What about one of the smaller ones? They are kind of cute in a weird way.”
“How much longer before we bring the alien on board?”
The ship slowly moved into place in front of the sun, mimicking the effects of a solar eclipse and started to descend
Outside, I was reminded of the time as a child, despite warnings, I looked directly into a solar eclipse and was looking through spots rest of the day. My gaze matched those who were looking skyward and the object that eclipsed the sun was evident. A large shiny reflective disk, the size of a city block, came slowly revealed itself. It chose to hang in the air above the convention center. It was just as Hollywood predicted in an endless stream of movies and TV shows since Invasion of the Body Snatchers in 1956.
Police officers converged on the scene, each one agitated they dispatched prior to the National Guard. There was nothing they could do; they weren’t trained for this kind of situation. Police training drills covered things like hostage situations and active shooters in a crowded building, not alien invasions, if this in fact was an invasion. One ship was hardly an invasion. The word invasion implied that the aliens were going to deploy an army for the sole purpose of conquering. The most anyone could do is erect barricades and route traffic out of the area and snap photos for their social media accounts.
People snapped photos. The guy in the Yeti costume attempted to photobomb as many of those pictures as possible. The longer the disk hung in the air, the less people believed it was a publicity stunt by the ALIENS organizers. Police vehicles converged on the scene and barricades were erected erasing the last bit of doubt anyone had. I snapped a series of pictures with my phone. The realization of danger swept over me, starting with my feet, and traveled upward. I had worked dangerous stories before, but this was different. I could feel my brain doing acrobatics as it decided if it should start engaging in whatever defense mechanisms it uses to protect itself during a traumatic experience. I took a deep breath and pushed my way to the barricade.
I flashed my press pass hoping to talk to the emergency workers on the scene. The crowd grew larger as it expanded beyond those who attended the expo. A nearby church emptied out, the congregation following their pastor who was preaching loudly about second coming. I stopped buying into religious dogma around six or seven when I was kicked out of Sunday School for asking too many questions. I never thought Jesus would return to earth in a UFO. I wanted to tell the pastor this but never got the chance.
My phone vibrated. There was a string of frantic text messages from my boss asking what was going on at the convention center. He heard rumors of an alien invasion. There was also a cell phone video of the entire event from the Yeti. I scanned the crowd for him and couldn’t find him. Maybe he went back inside.
Aboard the ship the chatter among the bipedal creatures had waned. On the viewscreen they watched the crowd grow larger and larger as the humans exited the building and spilt into the parking lot.
“There are so many to choose from!”
Other buildings started to empty, and the crowd grew. One individual group followed a man who gave the appearance of a leader, or at the very least someone important. “That one!”
Buttons were pushed, commands were given, and a door opened up on the bottom side of the ship. The man was sucked into the ship straight to the containment chamber, which was nothing more than a large observation room with glass walls. Outside of a few pieces of alien furniture, it was empty.
Certain calibrations were not adjusted for the Earth’s atmosphere so when the intended human specimen was sucked into the ship, so were a number of people standing closest to the ship including a number of police officers, someone in a Yeti costume, and an alien holding a sign that said, ‘free hugs.’
The door slid shut and the spaceship was gone faster than it arrived. The extra passengers were discovered minutes later, long after the ship had left the solar system.
“We can’t return them. It would compromise the containment field. What do we do?”
“Once we get home someone will figure it out. We’re just the retrieval crew. Maybe they can take care of the cows.”