Friday, September 16, 2011

Alien Contact Anthology -- Story #20

Alien Contact: 26 stories to unveil -- one per week in order of appearance in the anthology. This is story #20. Forthcoming in November from Night Shade Books. If you are new to this blog, you might want to start at the Beginnings.

"What You Are About to See"
by Jack Skillingstead

This story was originally published in the August 2008 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction, and is approximately 5,100 words in length.

On September 10, 2008, I contacted author Nancy Kress for copies of her three "alien contact" stories (see her "Laws of Survival," Story #19). In that same email I asked Nancy to recommend one or two other stories "you think are the best -- or at least your favorites -- that have been written since 1980." And Nancy graciously responded the following day: "As for other authors' first-contact stories, there was a good one in the recent, August 2008 ASIMOV'S: Jack Skillingstead's 'What You Are About to See.' Very weird alien."

The previous year, in July 2007, I had been contacted by an agent for the Virginia Kidd Agency, on behalf of Jack Skillingstead, to inquire if I would be interested in a collection of his short stories. At the time I had already planned to depart Golden Gryphon Press at the end of the year, so I suggested the agent contact the publisher directly.1 I had some familiarity with Jack's stories, but certainly not all of them at that time. So, after receiving the recommendation from Nancy Kress, I contacted Jack's agent, explained the basics of the anthology, and requested a copy of the story, which she kindly provided. I then printed out a copy and added it to my increasingly large pile of stories to be read and considered.

The fact that "What You Are About to See" is included in this anthology shows that I was indeed taken with this story. In fact, I've probably read the story at least four or five times now, and each time the story still leaves me in awe. This is one of those stories that slithers in behind your eyeballs as you read, and tweaks the hell out of your mind. I asked Jack for some personal thoughts on the story and this is what he wrote:
"What You Are About to See" was inspired by my first-ever visit to Arizona back in 2006. I got three stories out of that Nebula Awards weekend. Which is weird when you consider I never left the hotel. Looking down at the desert from my 737 I thought of mirages, flying saucers, and a 7-Eleven store in Portland, Maine. I have no idea why. These unrelated elements came together when I needed them to at the keyboard.
Three stories as a result of a weekend convention is impressive in and of itself. However, Jack's low-key, laid-back comment above really understates the quality and power of "What You Are About to See." Here's an excerpt from the beginning of the story:
It sat in a cold room.

Outside that room a marine handed me an insulated suit. I slipped it on over my street clothes. The marine punched a code into a numeric keypad attached to the wall. The lock snapped open on the heavy door, the marine nodded, I entered.

Andy McCaslin, who looked like an overdressed turnip in his insulated suit, greeted me and shook my hand. I'd known Andy for twenty-five years, since our days in Special Forces. Now we both worked for the NSA, though you could say my acronym was lowercase. I operated on the margins of the Agency, a contract player, an accomplished extractor of information from reluctant sources. My line of work required a special temperament, which I possessed and which Andy most assuredly did not. He was a true believer in the rightness of the cause, procedure, good guys and bad. I was like Andy's shadow twin. He stood in the light, casting something dark and faceless, which was me.

It remained seated—if you could call that sitting. Its legs, all six of them, coiled and braided like a nest of lavender snakes on top of which the alien's frail torso rested. That torso resembled the upper body of a starving child, laddered ribs under parchment skin and a big stretched belly full of nothing. It watched us with eyes like two thumbnail chips of anthracite.

"Welcome to the new world order," Andy said, his breath condensing in little gray puffs.

"Thanks. Anything out of Squidward yet?"

"Told us it was in our own best interests to let him go, then when we wouldn't it shut up. Only 'shut up' isn't quite accurate, since it doesn't vocalize. You hear the words in your head, or sometimes there's just a picture.…"

The story has a flashback (or two) as we learn how Brian Kinney, the protagonist, came to be involved with the NSA -- and how he ended up face to face with "Squidward." Just one more brief excerpt:

"Listen to me, Brian. We finally got one. We finally got an honest to God extraterrestrial—and it's in there."

"In the 7-Eleven."

"No. In the Arrowhead facility that looks like a 7-Eleven in our present consensus reality. The alien is hiding itself and the installation in some kind of stealth transdimensional mirror trick, or something. I've been here before. So have you. Our dreams can still remember. I've come out to the desert—I don't know, dozens of times? I've talked to it, the alien. It shuffles reality. I keep waking up, then going back to sleep. Here's the thing. It can cloak its prison, reinterpret its appearance, but it can't escape."

I regarded him skeptically, did some mental shuffling of my own, discarded various justifiable but unproductive responses, and said: "What's it want?"

"It wants you to let it go."

"Why me?"

"Ask it yourself. But watch out. That little fucker is messing with our heads."

If you would like to read "What You Are About to See" online, Night Shade Books will be publishing the complete story via their newsletter, website, and Facebook page next month. You can subscribe to the NSB newsletter here to be notified when the story is available, or simply check back on this blog as I will be linking to the story as soon as it is posted.

[Update April 7, 2014: "What You Are About To See" has now been posted on More Red Ink here.]

[Continue to Story #21]


1. Jack Skillingstead's short fiction collection, Are You There and Other Stories, was acquired and published by Golden Gryphon Press in 2009, with very cool cover art by the inestimable John Picacio. John has written a lengthy blog post on the "process" he went through, including a complete redesign, to create the cover art.

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