Intergalactic Medicine Show     Print   |   Back  

    by Edmund R. Schubert

  Listen to the audio version

Brian Byrd was headed, with much relief, to prison again, when he spotted a small patch of nothingness overhead. It was located near the North Star, a void of light where HD172167 should have been. Given that HD172167 - also known as Vega - was the fifth brightest star in the sky, Brian was eager to get to prison so he could get a better look at what was going on.

With the yellow headlights of his dented old jeep reaching into the night, Brian pressed even harder on the gas pedal, speeding down the deserted stretch of Route 10 between Phoenix and Tucson.

Glancing upward through the windshield again, Brian found his gaze drifting from the splotch of nothingness where Vega should have been to the bright orange orb that was Mars. He couldn't help it; as compelling a mystery as the sudden disappearance of Vega was, Brian was hopelessly in love with the Red Planet. There was something about Mars that had always captivated him, and this summer a happy coincidence of orbital mechanics had brought the Earth and Mars closer together than they had been in almost 60,000 years.

Sweet Mars . . .

Brian pinched his lips and exhaled through his nose. If only the proximity of Mars and Earth could do something to improve the relationship between Mars and Venus. But it didn't - not in the Byrd household, anyway.

Where did I go wrong, Brian wondered for the thousandth time. How did my wife become my boss? My overseer? My warden?

It hadn't always been that way. It had been wonderful. Once.

But now . . .? Now Brian was happy to be going to prison once a week, just so he could get away from her. Warden Emma. Back when things were good, Emma had suggested he quit his job as manager of the local bookstore and go back to school to get the degree in astronomy he'd always dreamed of. She'd worked extra hours to keep them afloat financially while he studied, and he appreciated her efforts to support him. But somehow, somewhere along the line, her responsibility for the family's finances subtly morphed into her controlling the finances, which eventually turned into outright domination of the relationship. By the time Brian got his degree and discovered how precious little money astronomers made, Emma had completed the transformation from a supportive friend to a power-mad demon. And though Brian could theoretically have walked out at any time, divorce was not an option. As miserable as he was, in the end he had to admit he was more afraid of being alone.

Brian eased his jeep off the main road and into the entrance to McFarland Correctional Institute, his red turn-signal blink blink blinking surreally in the desert landscape. It made the terrain look like some bizarre darkroom image of the moon.

Brian had been coming to the state penitentiary for eight months now, ever since the dean of Brian's community college made a deal with the warden to trade college credits for free grunt labor. It was a sweet deal for all involved. The dean got his campus cleaned and repaired for next to nothing, while the warden got college-level classes taught on site, which kept the inmates occupied and therefore less likely to cause trouble. And Brian . . . Brian was guaranteed at least one night a week out of the house. A sort of work-release program from home. A furlough from his wife.

"Evening, Professor," said the uniformed guard in the booth at the front gate. No one called Brian by name except the warden. They all seemed to like him fine, but he wasn't even sure they knew his name.

Brian nodded at the guard, watching the gate as it rose. He drove under it, then listened carefully as he headed for an open parking space. The heavy front gate always made a distinct kthunk when it closed. Not a loud noise, but one with a finality that always sent shivers up his spine.

Brian parked his jeep and hoisted his NexStar telescope case out of the back, staggering under its weight on his way to the next guard post, just inside the door. Here he stopped to sign in. A young guard opened the case and began inspecting the telescope. Brian let the prisoners and guards look through his telescope, but only under very controlled conditions. He was not liking this inspection, but he only realized how obvious his concern must have been when the older guard, Lou, stepped in and made the younger one stop.

"Don't mess with the perfessor's gear, kid."

"But we're supposed to -"

"I said don't mess with his stuff." Lou winked at Brian.

Brian's cell phone rang. He answered it, then stood listening. For a very long time. Periodically he nodded.

It was Emma, making the same speech she always made. Home by 10:30; call when he left. Blah blah blah. With his free hand he stroked his pointer finger back and forth across his left eyebrow, feeling the hairs alternate between smooth and bristly depending on which way he ran his finger. Smooth, bristly. Smooth, bristly.

Behind him, Brian overheard Lou saying to the younger guard, "His wife. Always checks up on him when he gets here. Gives 'im an earful."

On the phone Brian heard the last few words of what his wife was saying and realized he had been distracted by Lou's comment. And whatever Emma had just said, it hadn't been the usual.

"I'm sorry, Emma," Brian said. "Could you repeat that last part?"

"Excuse me?"

Emma's tone was ice. When she was annoyed, she could single-handedly end global warming with her tongue.

"I'm sorry, honey. There was -"

"Excuse me?"

"I -" Brian cut himself off.

Just shut up and take it, he thought. It will only get worse if you say anything but Yes, Dear.

Emma paused a moment, listening for silence. Making sure she had Brian's full attention. Then, in a voice that Brian imagined was identical to that of the serpent from the Garden of Eden, she said, "There will be consequences for this. Do I make myself clear?"

There was a fine line between regular Emma and really freakin' scary Emma, and he had just crossed it. Immediately he said, "Yes, dear."

The phone line went dead.

Brian stared at his cell phone for a moment. Then he closed it, very slowly, trying to counteract his impulse to hurl it against the nearest wall. He wanted to see it shatter into a million glittering pieces, raining electronic shards onto the floor.

Instead he stalked off.

"Carry your telescope for you?" Lou offered. He took hold of the telescope case's thick plastic handle.

"Don't touch it," Brian snapped, grabbing the case himself.

He walked on. Lou walked next to him in silence.

"I'm sorry, Lou," Brian said after a minute.

"It's awright, perfesser. Don't you worry 'bout it."

Brian inhaled deeply, slowly. Gathering himself.

"Any chance I can see Warden Tomlinson tonight?" he asked. "I need to ask him -"

"Good Lord, no. You don't want to talk to Tomlinson now," Lou said. "Not tonight."

"Why's that?"

Lou whistled softly. "You haven't heard about Kit? Damn, I thought everybody knew. I forget sometimes that you're not in here every day like the rest of us."

"Knew what? What are you talking about?"

"I'm talkin' 'bout Kit Martens."

"I know who Kit is, he's in my astronomy class. What happened to him?"

"His wife and baby girl got killed last Friday in a car wreck. Got t-boned by a tractor trailer on their way to talk to his lawyer about why Kit's appeal had been denied. So Kit applied for special leave to attend the funeral and the governor hisself turned him down. It's like it's personal or something. Like the governor's holding some kind of grudge. I ain't never seen nothing like it. The warden got into a big fight with the governor about it this afternoon, so he's still pretty touchy 'bout dern near everything."

Brian breathed deeply.

As bad as his own situation was, he couldn't begin to imagine what must be going through Kit's head right now.

Out in the yard the usual suspects had been assembled for their weekly session with the Professor. Brian began setting up his NexStar's tripod in the middle of the basketball court. It was the smoothest, firmest surface available to him at the prison - better, really, than even his deck at home. It was certainly a more relaxing place to be.

Brian's cell phone rang. He tried to ignore it. Snickering came from the men in bright orange overalls. One voice called out, "That'll be the Mrs."

Brian walked off a distance and answered it, snarling. It was bad enough when the guards gave him grief, but when the inmates did it, too . . .

"Look," he barked into the phone, surprising even himself with his venom. "You call me one more time tonight and I swear, I'll have them throw me in a cell and lose the key."

Snapping the phone shut, he immediately hoped that it had actually been his wife and not someone else.

Brian rolled his eyes. Yeah, like I have any friends who might call. His parents were both dead and his old friends had all been alienated by his wife's demeanor. Who else would it be?? He opened his cell phone long enough to change it from ring to vibrate. He didn't want everyone knowing when she called back again, and she would before long, there was no doubt about that.

Brian went back to setting up his telescope, and as he worked he began speaking about the one thing that mattered to him anymore: astronomy. His voice grew softer and calmer, and the men in orange suits drew nearer.

"Within the constellation Ursa Major is a group of stars known as the Big Dipper. Two of the stars within the Dipper can be used to locate Polaris, also known as the North Star. Fourteen thousand years ago the Earth's axis was aligned differently and another star, Vega, was the North Star. On my way here tonight I noticed that Vega was missing -"

Murmurs of dissent rose, until one inmate said, "We want to look at Mars."

This comment was followed by a chorus of "yeahs," and Brian stopped what he was doing. "Look, nobody loves Mars more than I do, you all know that. But we looked at Mars last week. And the week before. Now one of the brightest stars in the sky has vanished, and you want to look at Mars again?"

"Damn straight," said a voice in the middle of the pack. More "yeahs" followed.

Brian looked at the crowd of men in orange. You think I don't recognize your voice, Striker? I'm whipped, not stupid . . .

"All right, Mr. Striker. I'll make you a deal: you show me where the North Star is, and I'll let you look at anything you want. Just show me the North Star."

Striker came forward from the pack. Hands jammed in his pockets, he looked back and forth between Brian and the group until finally, defiantly, he thrust one finger toward the sky and said, "There. It's right there."

Striker was pointing directly at the North Star.

Brian's eyes went as wide as Jupiter. He definitely hadn't expected that.

Wondering what to do next, he stared at the men, his right hand drifting to his face as his pointer finger ran over his left eyebrow. Smooth, bristly. Smooth, bristly.

In the background, Brian spotted Kit, whose presence shocked him more than Striker's correct answer. Kit? Here? After what had happened to his family?

Yet there he was.

Maybe the man just needs a diversion, Brian thought. Something to take his mind off of what had happened. He's a stronger, braver man than I'll ever be, that's for sure.

That's when he noticed what Kit was doing. Kit held out one hand and pantomimed like he was throwing dice, then deliberately shook his head 'no.'

No? No what?

Then it hit Brian. Kit was saying that Striker had thrown the dice and taken a chance - and gotten lucky. The odds of Striker getting that lucky were . . . well, there was no other word for it, they were astronomical. But Kit was right: Striker had no idea where the North Star was; he had simply gotten lucky.

Brian looked Striker in the eye. "Are you sure? Because I'm feeling charitable. If you want, I'll give you another guess."

Striker turned his hand into a fist and stood ramrod stiff, looking like he might explode. He took a step forward. And then he stuffed his fist into his pocket and slunk back to the group. Brian suppressed a smile and launched back into his lecture.

"The brightest stars in most constellations," he began, "are assigned a letter from the Greek alphabet, Alpha for the brightest, Beta for the next brightest, and so on. But Ursa Major is one of the few exceptions to this rule. The seven stars that make up the Big Dipper are ordered from end to end, starting with the one closest to Polaris. We can then use Polaris to find Vega - or at least the place it used to be."

"Hey, professor." It was Kit. "I've got a question."


"You told us once that some of these stars are millions of light years away. But if it takes millions of years for their light to reach us, how do we know they're still there? What if Vega blew up and we just don't know it yet? That star could already be dead, couldn't it? Dead for a long, long time. Just . . . dead."

Brian was at a loss. Most of Brian's students at the community college didn't put this much thought into the subject. But such a bleak perspective. Not that that should come as a surprise, all things considered.

"A good questi-"

The lights flickered. On and off. Off and on.

A whisper sounded in Brian's ear, so far inside his ear that it was almost inside his head: Who is the one?

And then every light in the McFarland Correctional Institute blinked out.

Back-up generators tried to kick in and the lights flickered on again, just for an instant. Then they were out for good and darkness reigned.

Amid shouts from the guards and mutterings from the prisoners, Brian became aware that it wasn't just dark, it was pitch black. Unnaturally so. And deathly silent. Aside from the handful of human voices, there wasn't another sound. Not dogs or birds; planes or cars; crickets. Nothing.

Brian looked up toward the sky, searching for Mars, or the moon - for any source of light, really - just in time to see a great semi-circle of blackness, an inverted crescent of nothing, easing its way over the prison, blotting out everything above. It was like someone had just dragged a lid over a pot, and he was inside that pot.

This wasn't an eclipse - he had memorized the schedule of eclipses for the next three years.

Was it a jailbreak?

No, Brian could sense the prisoners all around him. But they hadn't made a move - not one of them. They hadn't moved toward the walls, nor had they tried to return to the building. They just stood there.

Then, suddenly, Brian could feel something in the darkness, something moving, something draping itself over him until it engulfed him, as if someone had dropped a silk parachute over him and the parachute was now seeping into his skin.

Then came the voices.

Inside his mind, small voices chattered unintelligibly.

As Brian focused, he found he was able to identify and understand some of the individual voices. He heard Striker and Kit. Preacher. Gamedog. Little George and Lou and Tommy. Even the warden. Hosts of voices in the darkness; inside his mind. He heard his own voice, too, repeating over and over, Dear God, what is going on?

To Brian's surprise, another voice inside his mind answered; a powerful voice that Brian knew everyone else could hear, too.

"Who is the one?"

The chatter in Brian's head instantly rose to a crescendo. One who? One what?

All the small voices of the inmates wanted to know who, what.

"Enough!" The sure voice cut through their minds, silencing them. "How you creatures do prattle when you gather in large numbers. It's insufferable."

A flash of blackness exploded around Brian, a burst of black even darker than the night that surrounded them.

Something stood among them, and the booming voice softened, no longer so overwhelming.

"We heard a mind that was desperate to escape," the voice explained. "It drew us to this place. Never before have we encountered such a will to escape."

"Escape?!" Over and over, that word rippled through the minds and across the lips of the incarcerated men. "Escape!"

"Where are you?"

The chatter of the prisoner's voices rose to a crescendo. Brian could feel the bodies of the prisoners surging, pressing forward, moving toward the darkness that surrounded the otherworldly voice.


"Take me."

"I'm the one you want."

The other voice continued, softly, but more insistent. "Do not misunderstand. We seek one of your kind to travel with us throughout the myriad galaxies. We need your unique perspective as a race that has never experienced interstellar travel. But the one who goes with us shall never return, never see this planet again.

Who is this one? We know you are here."

And all the small voices fell silent. Bodies stopped their forward press. And the darkness turned cold from fear.

Someone near Brian muttered, "I only got six months left."

Another voice said, "Six months? Hell, I'm outta here in six weeks."

Suddenly Brian became aware of a strange sensation. A feeling, a . . .

A vibration.

It was the cell phone in his pocket.


That's when Brian realized it. Realized the truth. He was the one they had come for. The one whose misery had become a tangible thing. The one so desperate to escape that aliens had sensed it from millions of miles away.

He was the one.

Good God, Brian thought, I'm finally going to escape. To get away from her.

The thought sent an electric thrill racing up Brian's spine. He pulled the cell phone out of his pocket and let it fall to the ground, taking his first step toward freedom.

Something brushed against his arm . . .

Mars was fading. You had to know exactly where to look to find it. For months it had dominated the night sky, but now it was just another prick of light, adrift among so many others - including Vega, which was plainly visible again next to Polaris.

In the middle of the darkened prison yard, Warden Tomlinson approached a lone figure standing next to a large telescope.

"I'm sorry to have to tell you this," the warden began, "but she's won her court case. They're giving her permission to come in here with a team of investigators."

"But you said that was impossible, that the state would never -"

Warden Tomlinson ran his fingers through his thinning hair. "I know what I said. I was wrong. What can I say? I'm sorry. Her husband disappeared and this is the last place he was seen."

The first man spread his arms, his palms to the sky. "As long as I'm here in this prison, you've got the right head count. But if she finds me . . . well, you're going to have some fancy explaining to do. And I don't care how many witnesses you produce, no one will ever believe a UFO took him."

"So what do we do?"

The man at the telescope brought his right hand to his face and ran his pointer finger over his eyebrow. Smooth; bristly. Smooth; bristly. He said, "There's only one thing to do. 'Kit' has to go into solitary confinement. You've got to put me in the hole for a couple of weeks."

The warden shook his head. "You don't want to go down there."

"Kit" looked up at the night sky. No, I don't want to go down. I want to go up. And for just a minute there I thought I was going to. For just a minute I thought they had come for me . . .

Brian thought wistfully about that night, late last summer . . . but only for a twinkling of an instant. Every time he allowed his mind to go there, his feelings immediately turned from longing to embarrassed guilt. How had he ever thought that his situation was the worst imaginable? That he had been worse off than Kit?

But the wistfulness crept back in anyway. For ten seconds on that singular and fateful night, he thought he had seen his freedom. It had looked as close as Mars and then turned out to be as far away.

Finally, firmly, he said to the warden, "Well, going in the hole isn't my idea of a good time, either. But it beats the hell out of letting Emma get hold of me again . . ."

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