T.J. Land © 2018
All Rights Reserved
The Faceless Man
The ship crashed into a mountainside and broke into several thousand flaming pieces.
In retrospect, it would turn out to be the most surmountable challenge the three of them would face that day. They emerged from the wreckage perfectly intact, having been encased in a force field, and quickly set about disposing of the evidence. The ship’s scattered remains were vaporized, which took only an hour. The damage done to the mountain—most noticeably a crater in which the largest chunk of their vessel was lodged—posed a more serious problem. Luckily, the impact had compromised the structural integrity of the rocky outcropping just above the smoldering cavity, and as they were pondering the dilemma, there was a rumble, a roar, and a massive rockslide covered it up.
“Excellent,” said Meteor, his tone implying that this had been his plan all along.
Well, no. Not “his” tone, not really. No human language offered pronouns equivalent to those which they’d used to refer to themselves in their previous lives. They’d decided, when they were teaching themselves the language preferred by those who inhabited this region, to use the pronouns considered appropriate for human men, for the simple reason that that was what they were pretending to be. Of all the skills they’d acquired during the last few months while learning how to pass for humans, this had vexed Meteor the most. Weeks had been spent pacing up and down the ship mumbling “he, his, him” and trying to make the words stick in—hah! Success!—in his head.
Dusting themselves off, they climbed to the mountain’s peak and gazed down at the city in the distance.
“Success, comrades,” Meteor said, spreading his arms as though to absorb the electricity he could sense flowing through every towering structure. After so long hurtling through the black, empty void, it was immensely refreshing.
But for two small facts, any passerby glancing Meteor’s way would have written him off as unremarkable in every respect. He had two arms and two legs, and was of average height, average weight, and average musculature. His dark brown hair was short and its style almost aggressively boring. All that distinguished him from millions of entirely average men was his nudity and his face. To wit: he didn’t have one. While the rest of his body had been covered in synthetic skin, his chin, cheeks, and forehead were all bare, gleaming metal.
Gloss placed a hand on his shoulder, probably less a gesture of congratulations and more a precaution in case their leader, in his enthusiasm, leaned too far forward and toppled off the cliff edge. He did have a face, a brown and narrow one to which the aforementioned passerby would have assigned an age range of eighteen to twenty-one. He was tall and skinny, and his hair fell limply to his shoulders. Because of a glitch in the program they’d used to design their disguises, it was a garish shade of pink. “All seems to be as we expected. Singular yellow sun, singular large oblate spheroid satellite, atmosphere a combination of nitrogen and oxygen, gravity roughly seventy percent of that which we were accustomed to aboard the ship.”
“Why can’t I see anything? It’s all blurry,” complained Spike, who was short with muscles packed into every inch of his small body, beige skin, and a wild crop of black hair that stood straight up in spikes as though in the grip of a potent gel. This, in fact, was the reason behind the name he’d chosen for himself. Unlike the other two, who’d simply named themselves after things they liked—fiery emissaries from the void that destroyed everything in their path and the shine you achieved after a lengthy polishing—he’d felt that his name should in some way match his appearance. An odd notion, but then, there were many things about Spike that Meteor found rather odd.
“This is your first experience of natural light. Did you calibrate your optical receptors before landing, like I told you?” Gloss asked patiently.
“Oh. Right. Okay, now I can see. Wow, the sky’s really blue. Never seen blue like that before. What’re those things?”
“Those are birds. Winged organic lifeforms. Vertebrate. Endothermic. Some species form part of the human diet.”
Spike raised his arm, following their flight path with his fingertip. “That looks like so much fun. Why couldn’t we have disguised ourselves as those?”
“To business!” Meteor snapped. His henchmen occasionally needed encouragement to keep their minds on the task at hand.
“Quite so, leader,” said Gloss, turning to face the city. “The target location is home to six million inhabitants spread across approximately seven hundred square kilometers. Temperate climate, though prone to violent storms in Winter. Prosperous, as human settlements go. That’s all the data we have at our disposal.”
“Initial impression?” Meteor asked.
Gloss made a series of low-pitched clicks. In their language, the sound conveyed ambivalence bordering on mild disdain. “It’s messy. Why are all the structures of varying heights? I dislike that intensely.”
“I think it’s spiffy,” said Spike, who’d grasped the vagaries of human slang more adeptly than the other two. “Ooh—look at that!”
He pointed to the highway that ran into the town’s heart, and the silver and black vehicle shooting down it.
“A motorcycle,” said Gloss.
“I want one.”
“Why? They’re primitive and inefficient. The only advantage they offer is to humans who can’t travel long distances because of their limited physical capacities.”
“Weak bodies. Low energy. Typical organics,” grunted Meteor. If he’d had an upper lip, it would have drawn into a sneer.
They made their way down the mountain. It was slow going. They’d spent ages unlearning the rigid gait that came naturally to them in favor of a more organic walking style, keeping their stances relaxed and their arms loose (“Imagine you’re a bag of greasy liquid,” Meteor had told the other two). By necessity, all their hours of practice had taken place on the ship’s perfectly smooth floor. Emulating human walking on rocky, uneven terrain was a frustrating business.
“We’re going to need to do something about your visage, Meteor,” Gloss observed when they had at last reached level ground, the green fields surrounding the town stretching out in front of them.
“Any ideas?” said Meteor. He was distracted by the unpleasant realization that, as bad as walking on uneven rock had been, the soil beneath his feet was immeasurably worse. It was soft. It squelched, as though the entire planet was one giant organic life-form and he was stepping on its moist flesh. Ugh.
“I might be able to make more synthetic skin if I can get my hands on the necessary materials and equipment. Perhaps instead of all three of us going into the city together, Spike and I should go alone and come back for you when I’ve…”
“No. We’ll remain together at all times, at least until we’ve established a base of operations.”
“Understood, leader. In that case, when we procure clothing, we’ll try to find some sort of cover to place over your head so the humans don’t notice the problem.”
Spike, whose attention had been fixed on a flying insect, gave him a curious look. “Clothing? What’s that?”
Gloss’s electromagnetic field flared, a short, sharp pulse of irritation.
“Gloss,” said Meteor warningly. “We’ll communicate in one of the geographically appropriate human languages or not at all. I shall not risk detection.”
Beyond problematic pronouns lay a more fundamental issue: none of them were accustomed to communicating vocally. Their erstwhile masters’ language had been comprised of spoken words and sign language, but they’d rarely had cause to communicate with them beyond the exchange of monosyllabic instructions and the acknowledgment thereof. Their own language was rudimentary, limited to simple electric signals and occasional clicks and bursts of static. Meanwhile, all the dominant languages on Earth—Mandarin, Hindi, Spanish, and English—originated in slimy tongues and throbbing throats, and while they’d learned to emulate human speech, it remained something of a distasteful chore.
To say nothing of why humans even needed so many languages. They all sounded alike to Meteor.
“Apologies,” said Gloss. “The database didn’t contain information as to what human noises or gestures best indicate impatience without going so far as to resort to a verbal berating.”
“I was just asking,” Spike protested.
“As I have explained multiple times, Rust-for-wits, clothing is…”
As Gloss proffered a long-winded explanation, Meteor noticed that up ahead, at the edge of the field through which they were currently walking, was a large, boxy structure. A human dwelling, most likely. Its walls were white, its roof red, and there was a human standing outside it, holding a brown sack. In the vicinity were several dozen smaller organics with fat, fluffy bodies.
“Gloss?” he said, pointing.
“Chickens. Domesticated avians kept primarily for the nutrients their bodies and eggs provide to humans. Not sentient. Not dangerous. The human might be a different matter. It’s in the prime of life. Probably familiar with the terrain. There are several implements close by that it might weaponize. We should avoid it.”
“Understood. On the other hand, we need clothing.”
“Guys, I think it’s noticed us,” said Spike.
The human had stopped feeding its chicken and stood frozen, gaping at them.
Quickly, Meteor said, “I’m the most charismatic, so I’ll do the talking.”
The other two were silent, which he took as a ringing endorsement of his plan. In a trice, he hopped over the frail fence surrounding the human’s property.
Coming to stand directly in front of it, he adopted a wheedling tone and said, “Hello, human. Doubtless, you have already registered the lack of skin on my visage, and therefore understand why I am unable to greet you with a socially appropriate smile, despite my very good intentions and desire to be your friend. Your powers of observation prompt me to dispense with subterfuge. We are not members of your species.”
As he spoke, he watched its…no, wait, watched her facial expressions change. The data they’d stolen had told them that human faces could convey an extraordinarily wide range of attitudes but, being haphazardly compiled by beings whose interest in the subject was limited, had only introduced them to the basics: smiling and glaring. They’d resolved to learn the rest via firsthand experience, and so Meteor made careful note of all the muscular twitches occurring around her eyes, the way her mouth opened and shut, the way her pupils dilated, the way her jowls quivered. He, of course, wouldn’t be able to practice any expressions until he’d acquired a face of his own, but it was never too early to get a head start.
“What the hell?” she whispered.
“Our true nature and the nature of our mission are both irrelevant to you at this time,” he informed her. “What is relevant is the fact that we require clothing. Essentially, we are homeless travelers presenting ourselves to you as supplicants. It is in keeping with your culture’s valorization of hospitality and charity that you provide us with what we need and that we part on cordial terms.”
“And if you tell anyone you saw us, we’ll vaporize you,” added Gloss as he climbed over the fence.
“I said that I would be the one to talk,” said Meteor peevishly.
“Why isn’t it saying anything?” said Spike, ambling over to peer at the human. He reached out and touched the brim of her straw hat. She jumped back, dropping the bag of seed in the process, and bolted into her dwelling. The door slammed shut behind her.
“W-what was that for?” Spike sputtered indignantly.
Gloss replied, “We may assume they don’t like unsolicited physical contact.”
The hat had fallen off. Spike stooped and picked it up, turning it over in his hands before placing it atop his unruly black spikes. “I wasn’t touching the stupid human’s body. This is clothing, yeah?”
Spike took off the hat and shook it, frowning. “Why isn’t it doing anything? Is it broken?”
“It’s not supposed to do anything. Its function is protecting the body from…”
“Quiet,” Meteor said, pointing toward the house. “She’s looking at us through that transparent panel.”
“Window,” supplied Gloss. “There are two more humans in there with her. All are clothed. Although now that Spike has frightened her, I doubt she or they will willingly surrender their garments.”
“It’s not my fault. You were the one who threatened to kill her, moron.”
Meteor strode toward the window, only for their view of the human and its family to disappear as an internal covering was pulled across. Undeterred, he rapped lightly on the pane with his knuckles. “Human, you… Gloss, can she hear me through this?”
“It depends how thick it is, which is difficult to ascertain from this vantage point.”
Raising his voice, Meteor said, “Human, if you can hear me, I reiterate my earlier request for clothing. I would like us to enact this transaction soon. While, as stated, you don’t need to be made aware of the nature of our mission, it is one in which time is of the essence.”
Spike, meanwhile, was crouching down and trailing his fingertips through the grain spilled from the brown bag. He picked up a piece and tentatively licked it with his tongue. That was one part of their disguises that wouldn’t stand up to close scrutiny, Meteor thought. Having had a good look at the genuine article when the woman had been gaping at him, he could tell that theirs were too smooth and too pale.
“Spike, don’t do that,” said Gloss.
“I want to find out what taste feels like.”
“That’s a defensible motive. We require more data pertaining to human senses,” said Meteor. “Report your findings.”
Spike popped the grain into his mouth. After a moment’s reflection, he spat it out. “Don’t like it.”
“The problem might be that it’s not human food,” said Gloss. “She was feeding it to the chickens.”
Brightening, Spike said, “Didn’t you say chickens were a human food?”
“Indeed,” said Gloss. He picked up the nearest and plumpest chicken and, with a brisk motion, pulled off its head. Stuffing the morsel in his mouth, he gave the rest to Spike, who peered down the stump and asked, “Is it supposed to leak so much?”
“That’s blood. Humans have it too,” said Gloss, his words not muffled by having a full mouth; their tongues were purely for show and had nothing to do with the mechanisms that allowed them to speak. He chewed silently for a moment, breaking down the beak with a series of crunching noises, then said, “Palatable. I would advise removing the feathers first. They tickle.”
Spike glanced speculatively toward the house. “Wonder what humans taste like?”
From behind the closed door, there came a scream.
Meteor snorted in disgust and abandoned the window, stalking over to Gloss and Spike. “This is futile. Are there any other items of clothing lying around here that we could take?”
Gloss picked a feather from between his front teeth and said, “There’s a human-shaped construct in that field wearing clothes. I suspect its purpose is to frighten scavengers away from the crops. That won’t be enough for all of us, though.”
“Then we’ll need to find a way to sneak into the building and steal the humans’ clothing without their noticing.”
“Wouldn’t it be easier to threaten them?”
“We’ve no idea what sort of weapons they have in there.”
“No, but it’s safe to guess that they won’t be as effective as our…”
“New problem,” said Spike, putting aside his first meal on Earth and wiping chicken’s blood from his jaw. “That vehicle’s coming this way.”
So it was. It was blue and white and came to a halt beside the fence. Two humans jumped out, each brandishing a small black object.
“Okay,” said the older human, who was wearing dark lenses over his eyes. “All of you, on the ground, hands above your heads.”
“They’re wearing clothes,” Spike noted.
“So they are,” said Meteor. “Gloss—are those devices weapons?”
“Presumably, given that they’re pointing them at us. I suspect these are human law enforcement officials.”
“Really? I was expecting something a bit more formidable. Hmmm…if we take their clothes and weapons, might other humans assume that we represent law enforcement?”
“Quite possibly. That would incline them to cooperate with us.”
“But there’s only two uniforms,” said Spike. “Also, I don’t want to wear ’em. They’re ugly.”
Ugliness was a new concept to Meteor, one that he still hadn’t fully grasped. On the ship, it had been one of many words and ideas that had belonged to their creators. For beings such as themselves, the nearest equivalents had been “inefficient” or “dysfunctional.” He was pleased to see Spike trying to think and speak like an organic, though he had no idea what was wrong with the uniforms, which seemed functional in every respect.
Meteor nodded toward the straw construct in the field. “You can wear those clothes.”
“They’re also ugly.”
“You can also wear the hat, and we’ll find you new clothes when we reach the city.”
Spike smiled. “Cool. I’m in.”
“Idiot,” muttered Gloss.
“This is your last warning!” shouted the human, his voice quavering. The pathetic creature was obviously frightened out of his wits, probably on account of Meteor’s unfinished disguise.
“Could we please return our attention to the matter at hand?” Gloss asked testily.
Chastened, Spike pointed his index finger at the humans. A wall of blue light appeared in the air in front of them.
“Jesus!” screamed the younger human and fired his weapon.
Gloss glanced down at his midsection, where a small piece of metal was embedded in his skin. As the total lack of blood provoked a whimper from the younger human, he snapped, “Spike! Do your deficiencies know no bounds?”
“Sorry, Gloss. Didn’t make the force field strong enough. Those projectiles are actually pretty tough. But hey, at least now we know they can’t penetrate our plating.”
“Must I do everything?” Meteor growled before charging straight at the humans. Both fired. One projectile flew over his head, the other barely grazed his shoulder. Rank incompetence. Spike’s role back on the ship had been as a security feature, and if he’d made such a poor showing when faced with an attacker, their creators would have had him recycled.
He tackled the younger one at waist height, throwing him to the ground and effortlessly snatching away his weapon.
“Weak bodies,” he said, pressing the barrel against the human’s head before looking up at the older one. “You—put your weapon on the ground. Then take off your clothes.”
White-faced, the human did as instructed. The younger one wriggled beneath Meteor’s weight and he stood up, keeping the weapon aimed at his fragile skull. “You too, neophyte. Gloss, collect their clothes.”
“Yes, leader. I’m fine, by the way. Superficial damage only. No need to fret so.”
“Quickly. We’ve spent far too much time here already.”
They left the two humans tied to the same wooden pole to which the straw construct in the field was attached. Dressing themselves was a slow, experimental process, during which Meteor glanced frequently toward the house to see if the other humans would emerge. Not a peep.
The straw construct was wearing a loose length of striped cloth around its neck. Meteor took it and wrapped it around the lower half of his head, then took the dark lenses from the older human and placed them over his optics. It didn’t fully conceal his lack of a face, but hopefully it would deter scrutiny until the problem had been dealt with.
“We’ll take the vehicle. Traveling in it will make it harder for humans to spot the flaws in our disguises,” Meteor said as Gloss helped him do up his shirt’s buttons. They were wretchedly fiddly things, and Gloss was the most accustomed to such delicate tasks, having once been responsible for maintaining the ship’s engines. “Spike, what are you doing?”
Spike had an anxious chicken under each arm. “You said this mission was all about subterfuge and blending in. If we want the humans to think we’re like them, we should carry things they need with us. They need food more than anything else. I’ll bet every human in the city goes around with at least one of these with them at all times.”
“Now you’re being sensible,” Gloss said approvingly, and he preened.
Once it was discovered that the vehicle required a driver, there was no debate over who it would be. Meteor sat in front of the steering wheel, Gloss sat in the seat beside him, and Spike went in the back with the chickens. To Meteor’s immense frustration, the technology was so primitive he couldn’t work out how it make it start.
“Turn that key,” Gloss suggested. “Put your foot there. No, not…”
The fence succumbed with a pitiful splintering sound as the car drove over it.
Thankfully, the road leading into town was sparsely populated, and they didn’t hit anything else as they jerked and zigzagged their way down it. By the time the human dwellings they passed by started to outnumber the cows, Meteor’s driving had improved to the point of near-competence, and he felt very pleased with himself.
Having spent most of his existence in an environment whose designers had been almost religiously devoted to smooth monotony and the aesthetic values of beige, he was fascinated by the speed with which the landscape changed. The greens and browns gave way to grays and blacks, then, as they moved deeper into the city, to riotous neon colors. The buildings changed shape, growing taller and thinner. The air became a fascinating miasma of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxides, and a thousand other components with which he was unfamiliar.
“Let’s review our objectives,” said Gloss. “First, we must find a facility with the materials I need to make you a face: a laboratory of some sort. Second, we need to familiarize ourselves with the territory and identify the places the key is most likely to be hidden. Third, we must decide how to conduct our search: our methodology, tools, time frame, and so forth.”
Staring out the window at the other cars, Spike said, “What’s fourth on the agenda? What do we do when we find the key?”
Meteor and Gloss exchanged a look before Meteor was distracted by the need to brake suddenly to avoid colliding with a truck. Gloss gazed down the adjacent road, at the crowd of humans walking, jogging, pushing carriages, and talking on their phones. “We turn this miserable galaxy upside down.”