Enjoy this new original story by science fiction author Robert Reed! In “Swingers,” the aliens have arrived. And they want to Join. Yes, that means what you think it does.
A man waits in line at Caribou Coffee. The woman behind him catches his eye, leading to happy words. Caffeine brings a dinner that isn’t a date, and another night is spent at the clubs, and then comes one magic evening with scallops and a romantic movie and the woman sitting on her sofa after midnight, smiling in a certain way, quietly telling this man what she needs more than her next breath.
From there, every step feels inevitable. Young lovers share interests and friends. They vacation together and use the bathroom together, and he moves his belongings into her apartment. Everything should remain perfect forever, except one of them suffers deranged fantasies about marriage. No, she doesn’t want to have a husband. She doesn’t even want the wedding. Her career might take her anywhere, and her father tried to kill her mother before that belated divorce, and there’s the problem of children and that ugly strain of insanity that runs up and down both of their family trees. A string of sloppy little fights teach them how to fight. Poisonous words are traded. He abandons the apartment, spending seven weeks on couches and air mattresses, coming within an angry signature of leasing a studio too small for two. But that’s when she relinquishes certain doubts and some of her pride. She admits that she will marry someday and it might as well be him, and smelling weakness, he says he wants nothing but marriage, which makes her cry and hold herself, confessing that she feels dead but all right, dammit, he wins.
Three years later they have a mortgage on the smallest house in a prosperous north Virginia suburb. They are that pretty young couple the neighborhood knows on sight. An older, equally childless husband and wife live down the block. The couples become natural good friends. Caribou and Marriage meet them for dinner once a week. Books are discussed, and dogs, and good cooking and old television programs. Like a lot of local people, their friends work for the government. The husband is a big handsome fellow occupying some imprecise position with what might be the CIA. They dub him Spy. Spy’s wife has a master’s in physics and some bureaucratic role involving science and public policy. Mrs. Spy has short black hair flecked with beautiful silver. The wide happy mouth and bright, perpetually amused eyes give her an unusual beauty. Even when she’s wearing a bra, it is obvious that her little breasts carry fine erect nipples. She is a charming flirt, and not only toward Marriage. One long evening at their little house ends with a kiss on Caribou’s mouth. Cleaning the kitchen afterward, the youngsters joke about their friends. They trade speculations and mild fantasies. Then for the first time, they have intercourse on the dining room table.
Next week takes them to the neighbors’ patio, but a summer rain drives them indoors. Spy asks Caribou for some nebulous help in the kitchen. Marriage finds himself standing in the living room with Mrs. Spy. The flirting runs hard in both directions. Marriage hears the spouses chatting, and then the kitchen falls silent. Shyness strikes whenever he looks at this intriguing woman. Eyes lock, and her smile makes the room warm, and then she moves close, rising high on her toes to place her mouth against his ear, and she breathes in and breathes out before whispering, “In nature, nothing is wrong.”
What isn’t wrong will eventually feel normal. Normal is to live through an ordinary week, focusing on work and polite conversations with an office full of routine people, and after the long commute, an enjoyable dinner with a spouse who shares your secrets. The neighbors are infrequently mentioned. Life is full of busy details; only teenagers obsess about sex and twisted love for hours at a time. But each week has its anticipation. There will be the stroll down the block with a hot casserole in hand, or a stack of charcoal briquettes ignited on the grill, making ready for T-bones brought by their guests. Wine and food always lead to the same destinations. But two bedrooms and two couples evolve into something else. One night, the younger husband finds himself beside a king-sized bed, watching his wife and Spy entertaining one another. Then Mrs. Spy crawls on top of the others, and he watches that too. Marriage’s body is last to the celebration. He doesn’t enjoy the sex as much as the others enjoy it. He isn’t comfortable with every act or everything that he touches. But this is the hallmark of his week, and what he enjoys as much as anything are the next days, sitting alone at work, nothing but ordinary by appearance yet full of this one grand unlikely secret that would startle everybody, if only they knew.
Dinner is salmon and jasmine rice and an offhand remark about the week’s oddest news. “I understand we’ve got dignitaries in DC,” says Marriage.
Spy and his wife glance at each other, neither speaking.
The ridiculous story has been slipping around the Internet for days. “Alien dignitaries meeting with the president,” Marriage says. “Going on for months, I hear. Under blankets of security, naturally.”
Their hosts laugh quietly.
Caribou jumps in. “The starship is tiny,” she says. “That’s the craziest part, I think. All the way from the stars, but it’s smaller than this room.”
“And with hundreds of passengers sleeping inside,” says Marriage. “Each alien is the size of a sewing needle. Or was it a knitting needle? Either way, the needles woke up and grew new bodies.”
“So they look like people now,” Caribou says.
“Movie-star pretty,” Marriage says.
The youngsters laugh and wink at each other, relishing this mad preposterous story.
Mrs. Spy looks at her husband, waiting.
Spy clears his throat, and with a rumbling big voice says, “Yes.”
“‘Yes’ what?” asks Caribou.
“Yes, you’re right,” he says. “It is a crazy story.”
Then Mrs. Spy leans forward, catching everyone with her smile. “How was my salmon?”
Marriage looks at her blouse and then her face. “Great,” he says.
The salmon was dry. Mrs. Spy is easily the worst cook in the foursome.
“Give us your recipe,” Caribou says.
“I will,” says the hostess.
Spy rises from the table. “You kids brought a great-looking cobbler. But maybe we should hold that for later. Too much food doesn’t help this old man perform.”
Everybody laughs. Everybody refills their wineglass, and with Bach playing, the party moves into the guest bedroom—a large familiar volume decorated in the spirit of a quality hotel room. Marriage and Caribou know the bed and the habits of their hosts, and everything is normal until everyone was spent. Then the women claim the bathrooms and Spy threatens to retrieve that wicked peach cobbler, but he remains in bed. Marriage finds his underwear and trousers. Aware that he is being watched, Marriage dresses quickly. He senses that he has to be careful, but when he looks at Spy, the other man is sitting against a tall pile of pillows, lips pursed, eyes dancing across the white terrain of the ceiling.
Speaking to the ceiling, he says, “We don’t have any cameras.”
“Maybe you assumed we did,” the man remarks. “Swingers like mementos, isn’t that the cliché? But the two of us don’t relish pornography, as a rule. And I don’t like how fat I look on video.”
“And besides,” Marriage says, “you are a spy.”
The naked man has bulk, particularly around the waist. He stares at his guest for a long while, saying nothing. No emotion shows, and Marriage regrets his words, feeling more uncomfortable than ever. But then a smile breaks lose, and Spy laughs when he says, “I’m just explaining that there aren’t any cameras watching us. And no listening microphones either. So what I tell you doesn’t have to go past these walls, if that’s what you want.”
“What are you telling me?”
“The starship landed eighteen months ago, near the old Arecibo telescope. It was tiny and lightweight. There were thousands of entities on board. Several hundred of the crew came out of hibernation, and it’s taken more than a year, but they’ve generated new bodies.”
Marriage tries to speak, but sound can’t get free of his chest.
“I know some of these visitors,” says Spy. “As it happens, I spoke to one of them just yesterday.”
“No,” Marriage whispers. “You’re joking.”
But there is nothing unserious about Spy. “The diplomat and I enjoyed a long productive chat, in fact.”
“You and the alien,” Marriage says.
“It does sound far-fetched, until you get used to the idea.”
“What did you talk about?”
“Many interesting subjects. Cultural exchanges, technological offerings. But mostly, the critical importance of understanding different species and doing what is best for your new friends.”
“Shit,” says Marriage.
“And do you know why I’m telling you this?” Spy asks. “You deserve to know why. You and your wife were mentioned, by name. The diplomat seems more than a little interested in you, as a matter of fact.”
Marriage expects to be interrupted. He waits for mocking laughter or one sane question. But Caribou listens without comment, arms crossed and her head down.
“They don’t look anything like us,” he says. “And their home world is nothing like the Earth. He told me to imagine trees that can walk, or photosynthetic animals. And they’re very social organisms, exceptionally good at blending in. That’s why they build bodies to suit the planet that they’re visiting. Their real name is spoken with pheromones and music, which humans can’t do. So we call all of them together ‘the Rookery.’ And one alone is a ‘Rook.’”
Her arms tighten, and against the pressure, she breathes.
He assumes that she doesn’t believe him.
“Spaceflight and building bodies: That’s just two of their abilities,” he says. “They’re offering us a range of new technologies, plus diplomatic links to a thousand other species. It’s taken months just for us to understand them and to work out the details, but the treaty is finished. Secrecy doesn’t matter anymore. That’s why the crazy rumors are being leaked. It’s part of the grand strategy, getting the public ready for the big announcement in ten or twelve days.”
She rocks in her chair.
“Nothing is left but the sacred ceremonies,” he says. “Joinings. The ceremonies are called Joinings. Ambassadors from both species will physically link, sealing trust and peace with their new friends.”
She stops rocking. “You’re talking about an orgy.”
He blinks. “She gave you the same speech?”
“Of course she did.”
Marriage feels foolish.
“So what do you think about all of this?” she asks.
“What do I think? Wow.”
Caribou studies him.
“‘Incredible’ isn’t a big enough word,” he says.
“And you’re interested,” she says.
“This is a once-in-forever event,” he says. “The historic agreement between humanity and creatures ten million years more advanced than us. How does ‘incredible’ do that justice?”
“It doesn’t,” she says. “You’re right.”
He risks a tiny smile.
“And here we are,” she says, “lucky enough to be invited to an extraterrestrial gang bang.”
Marriage straightens. “That isn’t what this is.”
“You’re right. That wasn’t fair of me. Joinings are deep religious ceremonies.”
“And a great honor,” he says.
“Yeah, that’s what she kept telling me.”
“One Rook has become very friendly with the Spies.”
“One Rook and the four of us. That’s a minimal Joining.”
She sighs. “This story about aliens is crazy. But what’s weirder is this wild interest of yours.”
“You thought I wouldn’t want this.”
“I thought it would make you sick.”
“Except it sounds wonderful,” he says.
She looks at him, disgusted and perplexed. “Tell me. Be truthful. Would you ever screw a dog?”
He blinks. “No.”
“Or fuck a pony? Or suck on a giant squid’s privates?”
“What are you asking?”
“Darling,” she says. “The oak tree on the patio is a closer relative to us than any extraterrestrial creature.”
“On some level, sure,” Marriage says.
“They look like us, sure. But that’s because they put on bodies the same way that we put on clothes. Inside, they are nothing like us.”
“What did she tell you?”
“That they are wonderful intelligent charming creatures,” Caribou says. “That their noble ambassadors are going out into the human world right now. Here and in other countries, individuals and groups are taking part in thousands of Joinings. They are celebrating with their new friends, which is all of humanity. Metaphorically speaking, of course.”
“One ambassador singled us out,” he says.
“A beautiful dear alien,” she sneers. “And oh, by the way, it’s a hermaphrodite. Even pretending to look like us, they still carry both sets of organs.”
“The president and her husband,” Marriage says. “They’re holding their own Joining.”
“With half of the cabinet sprawled across the floor. She thought it would help, mentioning that. But to me, that’s a pretty ugly picture.”
“Okay,” he says. “I understand. But will you play along?”
“You mean, will I stomach the situation, which happens next Saturday night? And oh, by the way, the Rook would appreciate using our house and our bed.”
“A few hours and an experience,” he says.
That was Spy’s phrase: “A few hours and an experience.”
She stares at him. “You still don’t see it.”
“The Rookery came to Earth eighteen months ago.”
“And when did we make our little arrangement with the neighbors?”
Marriage absorbs the words, the possibilities. With a guarded tone, he says, “You think they planned this.”
Now she laughs, tired and sorry. “What I used to believe…what made me happy, in so many ways…was imagining that those two respectable people liked us. Maybe they even loved us. But I was wrong. They wanted a presentable young couple to help service the star beast, and that just happens to be you and me.”
People are talking. On the train and in the office and at sandwich shops and coffee shops and then coming home again, people can’t stop discussing the aliens. On Monday, everybody laughs at the ludicrous rumors. Tuesday is even more entertaining, particularly when word gets out about orgies on the Oval Office floor. But the mocking and disdain lose momentum. On Wednesday morning, U.S. Air Force transports bring dozens of prime ministers and Nobel laureates, wives and second-tier actresses into Langley. The cover is some spur-of-the-moment conference dwelling on international relationships or some such muddle. Until today, the White House press secretary has done a credible job belittling every peculiar question. But today, she prefers using a sly grin with a cryptic “No comment.” Which is the moment when every stock market begins to suffer unexplained runs, smart money pulling out of every industry that is about to become obsolete.
The markets remain closed on Thursday. High-tech billionaires and famous athletes are brought into town under tight security. Then the chief justice has a coronary while working late at the Supreme Court, and two septuagenarian colleagues are crippled with back pains. A new consensus is reached. Friday morning, there is only one topic of conversation in the office. Nobody pretends to work. Everybody knows that the Secret Service canceled vacations three weeks ago and limousines are carting pretty-faced strangers around town, and there is the photo on the Internet that shows what looks like a giant feather floating near Puerto Rico, which has to be the alien spaceship, refueled and ready for the next long journey between stars.
People talk and talk, and at some point they notice that Marriage hasn’t offered one word about this mystery. His name is mentioned. Half of the office turns to him. What does he think this all means? Are there aliens among us? Are they here to give us treasure and keys to the universe? And incredible as it sounds, do they really want to pound our bones into submission?
His first secret life gave him one kind of delight. But this is so much richer.
Marriage twists his smile until his face hurts, and then with a low laugh, he says, “I should confess. I’m one of the Rookery’s scouts.”
Several people laugh; others try to piece together the joke.
Then he rolls his head to one side, shaking it oddly, saying, “But I am sorry, I don’t find you Earthlings at all arousing.”
And he walks away as comically as possible, sensing that life might never be better than this.
Once, just once, Caribou says yes to the Joining. And after that she remains remarkably quiet, about aliens or most everything else. Her silence terrifies the others. Four humans is the minimum; nobody can quite explain why. But every evening, wine and some contrived excuse brings the Spies down the street. They seem quite a bit older than last week. Their smiles are big and unconvincing, and they can’t stop staring at Caribou. She enjoys the fascination. She loves to watch these three supposedly mature adults talking about nothing, dancing around the only subject that matters. If Caribou was honest, she would confess that last Saturday’s disgust has turned into grudging curiosity. She isn’t crazy-curious like her husband, and she certainly isn’t horny-wild like the old lady and her fat goatish husband. Yet it is compelling, the idea of an ancient creature that has traveled halfway across the galaxy…and while Caribou won’t touch it, she can certainly stand next to the bed, asking questions whenever that pretty mouth is empty.
According to tradition, Caribou has responsibility for this Saturday’s dinner. But the day arrives and she has done nothing to make ready. The house is a mess and there aren’t any groceries, much less a menu for their guests to contribute to. When Marriage is nervous, his face grows tight and pained. Looking especially miserable, he mentions his concerns. “We have to feed our guests tonight,” he says, looking at the stove.
“What are we going to feed them?” he asks the stove.
Then with an abundance of caution, he looks at Caribou.
Silence is a knife, if you know how to use it.
Suitably gutted, Marriage leaves the kitchen to make a long phone call. He’s talking to his woman friend, using his mournful, little-boy tone of voice. Mrs. Spy fills him with advice and wishes him well, and he returns with the news that Caribou shouldn’t worry, he will take care of everything tonight.
“The day is yours,” he says, struggling to smile.
“Great.” She finds her purse and car keys.
He is surprised to be abandoned, and then on second thought, relieved. “Eight o’clock,” he reminds her. “That’s when she’s scheduled to arrive.”
“‘She,’” Caribou says.
“Or ‘he,’” says Marriage. “But not ‘it.’ That word offends them.”
“Good,” she says. “Now I know how to piss it off.”
Marriage stares at her. Then with a hard tone, he says, “Grace.”
“Her name,” he says. “We’ve told you that, more than once. But you weren’t listening.”
She heard everything they said, but this is more fun. “Why Grace?”
“She picked the name. I don’t know why.”
“She looks like Grace Kelly, maybe.”
“No,” he says. “She’s tall and dark.”
“And she’s thin, isn’t she?” Caribou asks.
“And I’m going to feel fat. I know it.”
Marriage says nothing, hoping that’s best.
“I’ll try to be back before eight,” Caribou says, slamming the door as she leaves. Her car is on the street. She sits inside it, catching the news at the top of the hour. Washington has been cordoned off by the military, nobody allowed in or out without presidential approval. The Vatican has just released a papal bull condemning relations outside the species. And the major announcement scheduled for Monday morning has been pushed up by twenty-four hours.
Caribou abandons her car, coming back through the front door.
Marriage stands where she left him, in the kitchen, presumably waiting for the stove to offer shrewd advice.
“You know what,” she says. “You and I and everybody…we’re all pretty much aliens to each other.”
The neighbors arrive an hour early and a little drunk. But then they share the same small glass of white wine, sobering up slowly while sharing details about the magic that will be spelled out in another few hours. The galaxy is full of life, they explain. But the advanced species always leave their bodies and native worlds, living in supercooled empires far from any sun. Truly modern species have Casimir generators no bigger than a deck of cards, just one of which can power an earthly city. A pico-dense computer the size of a flea can hold the total knowledge of humanity, with enough spare capacity for ten equally primitive species. Life is always mortal, they warn, but even the most complicated life can be backed up without end. And there is absolutely no reason human beings shouldn’t be living on Pluto in ten or twelve years.
“But what about Mars?” Caribou asks.
“Oh, that’s next year,” says Spy. “We’re going to get plans for the space liners and the factories to build those ships, and then it’s just a matter of materials and a little patience. Rookery technology can make anything from the rawest ingredients.”
“I’d like to see Mars,” says Marriage.
“You can go there with us,” Mrs. Spy says. “We’re going to use every connection and old favor to find berths on the first mission. Believe me.”
This is an enormously pleasant moment, four people sitting in the living room, sipping wine and the same fantasy.
Spy looks at his watch.
Without looking at hers, Mrs. Spy says, “Eight minutes till eight.”
“Grace,” says her husband, nodding slowly.
Mrs. Spy leans toward the young couple. “This isn’t about sex,” she says.
“Yes, it is,” Spy says.
She laughs and waves his noise aside. “Sex does happen, sure. But something else can occur during the Joining. Should I tell them, darling?”
“Tell away. But it’s not guaranteed.”
Apprehensive, Caribou sits back. “What happens?”
“Stories,” says Mrs. Spy.
Marriage and Caribou exchange glances.
“You have to remember,” the woman tells them. “Grace is ancient. We don’t know how old she is or even how to calculate age. I mean, she lives in some kind of rich hibernation between the stars, and she has visited at least a thousand alien worlds. This means millions of years of experiences. And during a Joining, the Rooks sometimes can be coaxed into telling stories. About some planet or odd sun they had the pleasure of experiencing ten million years ago.”
“Extraordinary stuff,” her husband says.
“They don’t normally tell stories?” Caribou asks.
“Not personal ones,” Spy says with authority. “Only during the Joining does that happen, and only if they’re happy enough and you’re happy enough. I’ve talked to people who know. To a soul, they say the best moments involved these little asides about rainbow-colored rivers and continents built from living foam floating in an endless sky.”
“Gorgeous, romantic stuff,” says Mrs. Spy.
“No pressure here,” Marriage jokes.
The laughter runs into thoughtful silence.
Spy’s watch gives out a musical tone. Without looking, he says, “Eight o’clock.”
A car door slams shut on the street.
Mrs. Spy hurries to the front window, nudging the curtains open. Laughing, she says, “We’re not using brown Tauruses, are we?”
“That’s the neighbor girl,” says Marriage.
“Pretty,” the woman says. Then she returns to the sofa, sitting farther from her husband.
At five minutes after eight, Spy says, “They’re usually prompt.”
“But they don’t drive themselves,” Caribou says skeptically.
“No, they have drivers and secure cars,” Mrs. Spy says. “But they are a very precise species. Showing up in time is important.”
At ten after eight, Spy offers a worthy excuse. “There have been so many Joinings during these last few days.”
“All the emissaries do this?” asks Marriage.
“Including Grace, yes. And I know she was supposed to attend three other ceremonies today.”
Caribou squirms in her chair.
At fifteen minutes after eight, Mrs. Spy says, “Make a call.”
“I was just about to,” says her husband.
Nobody answers the first two numbers. He stands to dial a third number, and then he talks to someone’s voicemail. “What’s the story, we’re waiting here, happy and bothered, and I think dinner is burning now too.”
Marriage and Caribou rush into the smoky kitchen.
They’re walking back into the room when Spy’s phone rings. He is peering between the curtains, answering with a gruff “Talk.”
Caribou sits. Marriage stays on his feet.
Loudly, Spy says, “What’s that again?”
His wife looks out the same window, seeing nothing.
“No,” Spy says.
She asks, “What?”
He holds up a finger, begging for silence.
Caribou stands, arms crossed and her feet apart. What might or might not be a smile is starting to show.
Marriage asks her, “What is it?”
She has a feeling. Spy is on the telephone, denying whatever it is that he is hearing, but she sees what is happening in his face—puzzlement and disappointment and the first traces of rage—and then he says the caller’s name and adds, “Thanks, I guess,” and pulls the phone away from his face, looking ready for any excuse to fling it to the floor.
“What’s wrong?” his wife asks.
“Grace is gone,” he says.
“They’re all gone,” he explains, talking mostly to himself. “Those bodies they were using? They died an hour ago, and the implants inside them seem dead, and that new ship that they grew in the Gulf just picked itself out of the water and flew away. No warning. No explanations. Just all of a sudden gone.”
Mrs. Spy says, “No.”
She looks at Marriage, at Caribou. She has to look out the window one last time, absorbing this unwelcome and undeserved madness.
Her husband curses.
“What about our spaceships?” Marriage asks.
Spy shakes his head. “Nobody knows what happened.”
“And the press conference tomorrow,” Marriage says. “What will the president talk about in the morning?”
For a long moment, nobody speaks.
Then Mrs. Spy says, “We did something wrong here. We must have. Somewhere in this process, our species disappointed them.”
“We didn’t do anything wrong,” Spy says.
Caribou moves closer to her husband, saying nothing.
Mrs. Spy sobs and curses.
Every vessel in Spy’s face is full of blood. “I can’t stay here,” he says. “I don’t want to…I need to be…I don’t know…”
Mrs. Spy looks ready for a long weep. But out of nowhere comes a throaty laugh, and she says to the others, “The Rookery wanted to teach us important things. And I guess that’s what they just did.”
“We have plenty to eat,” says Marriage. “If you want.”
The woman stares at him. Then she picks up her purse and the half-finished bottle of wine, leaving the front door open behind her.
Marriage closes the door and locks it.
Caribou sits on the edge of the dining room table, watching her husband. And when he drifts close, she says, “That day in the coffee shop, when we were waiting in line…why did you start talking to me…?”
“You talked to me first,” he says.
They laugh quietly.
“Either way,” he says. “Why were you interested in me?”
“I don’t remember being interested,” she says. “But I kept thinking that something intriguing might happen, if I gave you a chance.”
“And you’re still waiting, I bet.”
“No, I gave that up long ago.”
They watch each other for a few moments. Neither can be sure when the other starts to laugh, but then both of them are chuckling, and they hug, and holding hands, they set out on the journey to the kitchen, ready to carve what can be eaten out from the middle of the burnt and the sorry.
“Swingers” Copyright © 2011 by Robert Reed
Art copyright © 2011 by Chris Buzelli