The driverless service car pulled up beside the hotel foyer. After a moment of uncertainty, Maitch Esso stepped forward, leaning to check the authorization screen.
“You are the human,” the car said. “Get in. You have an appointment with Chief Archeologist Mogram.”
“It’s about time,” Maitch answered. “Did they find something at the dig?”
“You’ll learn more at the site.”
The car passed through a dreamlike city. Transparent, indefinable architecture in dark pastels occupied the landscape, crouching, coiling, reaching, twisting. Feeling removed from what had been his own planet, Maitch stared through tinted windows at the pedestrian traffic on either side of the narrow roadway. Aliens of three different species ambled along carrying what looked like weapons or tools: some were tall, gray and slender with long legs; others short and blue on four blunt pads; others pale green and horizontal, rustling too many legs for his eye to see.
Shortly after the aliens had settled on Earth, Mogram had dragged Maitch out of sleep freeze to serve as a consultant, assuming that with his background as a museum curator, he would understand the artifacts of ancient human culture. But Maitch had been an entomologist, not a historian or archeologist. Nevertheless, he had heard stories and seen books and vids, and the scientist’s questions were usually simple.
The car got to the city’s edge in a few minutes. The archeologist stood beside a wide excavation divided by cords and stakes into squares, each dug down to a different level. A variety of aliens worked at a section far deeper than the others, their busy motions indicating their excitement.
“Greetings, Mr. Esso!” Mogram said in a soft, cheery voice. Where its khaki uniform ended, the blue skin of its face, arms and stubby legs showed. Its eyes rose on stalks around a complicated, fleshy mouth. In place of cheeks, two sunken panels covered with deep pores served for breathing. “Thank you for joining us.”
Mogram lead Maitch to a small table covered with relics pulled from the pit.
A Teflon fry pan. A toaster. A cookbook. A spatula. A cutting board.
The man touched a small plastic house with an arcing roof and wide doors.
“A barn,” Maitch said, anticipating the question. He picked up a molded plastic figure. “They called this animal a cow. Once used for food, but that was very long ago.”
“Did you eat of this cow?”
“No, I did not. The age of decadence was long past in my time. We ate synthi-food, like you do. Although ours was still made from living bacteria.”
“Ah. Enlightening.” Mogram gestured for a student to make a note.
Maitch identified other plastic figures. A pig, a horse, a dog, a sheep.
“I can add something to these artifacts. As children we learned a song about a mythical farm. Even as adults we sang it at folk culture revivals. It went something like this:
“Old MacDonald had a farm, ee-i-ee-i-o!
And on this farm he had a cow, ee-i-ee-i-o!
With a moo-moo here,
And a moo-moo there,
Here a moo, there a moo, everywhere a moo-moo,
Old MacDonald had a cow, ee-i-ee-i-o!”
Maitch finished singing, feeling sheepish. Mogram just stared at him with its strange, tubular eyes.
Finally, the archaeologist spoke. “And what do you know of this figure?” On its palm, it held something roughly the size of a man belonging to the same toy set. It had a wide, domed head with bulbous eyes and long mandibles like an ant. Its thin, tubular body ended in four legs bent wide at the knees.
“I don’t know it.”
“But it was found here, among these artifacts.”
Maitch shrugged. “There must have been some contamination of the site.”
“I don’t think so. The material has been analyzed. The composition, the age, the proportions match those of the other figurines.” Mogram’s voice had become a bit shrill; it seemed exercised about the data, as if the toy had greater significance.
“Do you know what it is?” Maitch asked.
The archeologist looked at its consultant for a time before speaking, studying the man, attempting to read some truth or lie or hidden fact in his eyes, his mind, his face.
“It is an ichesthaet.”
“Old MacDonald had an ichesthaet?” Maitch laughed. “I don’t remember that. What sound would it make? What food would it produce?”
“This would not have made animal sounds or produced food. It would have held other creatures for food.”
Maitch picked up the skillet. It looked like an ancient Teflon pan, the coating scratched and pitted, just like the one he’d seen in a museum as a child, but by then, the pan was already a thousand years old.
“What period are you excavating? You must have struck something more ancient than I know.”
“Possibly later twentieth century. One of my students is particularly gifted at dating artifacts. And the barn seems to have a year printed on its base.”
Maitch reached for the model building. Although brushed clean, soil, water and mold had spotted and stained the paper covering its plastic sides. At the base, where Mogram’s blue finger pointed, words in the English alphabet read: “Fisher Price, Inc. 1973.”
“I don’t think it is.” Mogram said, its voice firm and cold. “You see, truth will come out. My people have been searching for the ichesthaet, tracking their path of destruction and decadence across the galaxy. It’s our mission to exterminate the entire race, to remove an evil that has devoured countless worlds. We lost their trail when they took a large leap about five thousand years ago. Then we caught tracks leading us to this solar system, this planet. It’s an ideal environment for the ichesthaet and their tricks and appetites.”
“I don’t understand,” Maitch said. “I’ve never heard this name, or seen such a creature. Not in any book or vid. The ancient texts from that period are full of images of alien invaders, each more ludicrous than the last, but there’s never been anything like that. Not that I recall.”
“There wouldn’t be. This race infiltrates a culture, covers its tracks, blends in.”
“That thing blend in? How?”
“They transform themselves. Using a quantum technique, they color their outer appearance to create a vivid illusion.”
“And it never wears off?”
“There are many planes of what you would call reality. On the plane you perceive, they would have become real in their quantum coloring. At another level, they would stay exactly the same.”
“Fine,” Maitch said. He had never seen Dr. Mogram so upset. “But they must not be here now. Perhaps they’ve gone extinct or moved on. I don’t recall any images of a creature that suddenly appeared over the recorded history of mankind.”
“It would not appear as a new creature, but as an old, established one.”
“Don’t tell me they’re cats,” Maitch laughed. “That would make sense. They always seemed alien to me. Little sneaky observers infiltrating human homes.”
“No. The ichesthaet would not imitate a pet or food animal. They would imitate the dominant species.” The scientist paused.
Maitch gaped at him. “Go on!”
“We have finally found the ichesthaet, Mr. Esso. They are human beings.”
A multi-media artist living near Washington, DC, Jeff Bagato produces poetry and prose as well as electronic music and glitch video. Some of his poetry and visuals have recently appeared in Empty Mirror, Futures Trading, Otoliths, Sheila-na-Gig, H&, Slipstream, and Midnight Lane Boutique. Some short fiction has appeared in Danse Macabre and The Colored Lens. He has published nineteen books, all available through the usual online markets, including Savage Magic (poetry) and Computing Angels (fiction). A blog about his writing and publishing efforts can be found at http://jeffbagato.com.