There was something about this particular story of extraterrestrial abductions in a sleepy little town where nothing usually happened that struck me as… curious.
So when Barbara Keysmith contacted my office and told me that she had some details to share that she hadn’t shared with the authorities, I was already primed to answer her call.
On the surface, there were a lot of similarities to other such abduction stories. There didn’t seem to be any pattern, any commonality among those who were taken. One time it was a little boy whose room was decorated with dinosaur stuff. Another time it was a woman who was running for a local office. The one common thing is they were taken quietly and at night. No break-ins. No struggles. No violence. People just vanished.
Some of them had returned, and they appeared unharmed, but none of them could remember a thing. If it was a terrestrial culprit, some maniac on the streets, the authorities certainly didn’t have any leads on him. And if it was something else, something otherworldly, well…if anyone knew for sure, they weren’t saying anything about it.
There was the odd report of eerie bright lights in the forest (which some claimed were ships, though searches of the forest unveiled nothing, not even traces). A few early-rising residents claimed that the dawn skies had turned an unusual color. “Bloodshot” is how one of them described it. One man said he found a strange swirling pattern in the grass in his front yard the morning after he discovered that his wife was missing—or rather, that she was taken. His cocker spaniel raced across the yard before he could stop her and messed up the pattern before the police could come and see it.
Ambulance-chaser types, scientists looking to the skies for evidence that we weren’t alone, and other reporters had been drawn to the quiet town of Midvale weeks before I showed up.
There wasn’t anything in the particular details that caught my attention. I might have gone to Midvale anyway. But something in my gut told me that there might be a deeper story worth following there. Okay, maybe it wasn’t just my gut. I’d heard about the accident that happened almost a year prior, where two scientists died. The abductions began a few months after. I wasn’t the first to note that the timing of the events was worth investigating. Some thought that maybe the scientists had done something, dared something that caught the attention of more advanced beings.
One of those scientists was Dr. V. Barnes, a brain researcher of minor prominence, and till recent years, a professor at the local college. The other was Jeffrey Keysmith, the husband of the woman who wanted to speak to me. And she wanted to speak to me about the real aim of the Barnes and Keysmith project, of which she too had been a participant. Barbara and Jeffrey had met at that very same local college, where both were studying human physiology. It was there too that the young couple had met Dr. Barnes and begun a friendship that became a partnership.
Barbara told me she was certain she knew who was abducting those people and she wanted someone to know and to investigate, someone who wasn’t the police or the feds. Someone she didn’t know and yet believed she could trust.
And wouldn’t you believe it. Her search led her to me.
Barbara Keysmith had a friendly face and a glint of mischief in her smiling eyes. But I have to admit, I was struck immediately by her crowning beauty, waves of thick and shiny brown hair. It was movie star hair, not a stray lock, every strand in its place. But then, what should I expect from such a fine lady who lived in such a fine house? I had all but two pairs of shoes to my name. My shoes. And my good shoes. (I had, of course, chosen to wear my good shoes on this occasion.) I would have bet if I checked their closet, her husband alone had a pair of loafers to go with every suit, and a suit for every day of the week—heck, every day of the month.
It was inherited, the money. They sure didn’t earn it from their professions. In my experience, men in lab coats weren’t well-to-do in real life.
I saw servants busying themselves around the house proper and the surrounding property. But the lady of the house took my coat herself, and asked me to call her “Barbara.” She served an impressive array of refreshments. Since all I’d had all day was a sweaty Danish sadly suffocating in a plastic package and an offensively bland cup of coffee, I tucked in for a bit. I wasn’t the shy type when it came to good eats.
As I chewed on egg salad and cucumber sandwiches and sipped a relaxing cup of English breakfast, Barbara got right to the point.
“I’m sure you’ll tell me that you’ve heard it all, Mr. Gast,” she started. “But the story I’m about to tell you—the one I’m about to pull you into—is outrageous.”
I set down my teacup and slid forward in my seat to show her I was listening.
Dr. Barnes, good friend and mentor to the young Keysmiths, announced one day that he was dying. He had an incurable terminal illness, the nature of which he did not share with the Keysmiths. He only assured them that he had already tried every avenue of therapy and cure. He had even traveled abroad to exotic places, seeking remedies in the tents of mystics and the huts of witch doctors.
Nothing could stop the progress of the disease. At first, he resolved not to tell anyone. To live his life as best he could until he succumbed. But a few months after returning home, he had what he believed was an epiphany.
Our physical bodies were meant to perish. In the grand scheme of things, humans were like mayflies, bursting into life and expiring before the cosmos took a single blink of its eternal eye. At first, Dr. Barnes explored the possibilities of extending the life of our bodies, as had so many others. But soon, he changed his perspective. Human bodies were the containers of human life, he thought. Fragile containers with expiration dates. The human body, he believed, was a necessary anchor, but a greatly flawed one. He sought to pare down human life and vitality to its essence—the essence of who each of us is—and to transfer that essence to a body that could last longer, and to transfer again when even that longer-lived body eventually failed. And to keep going in that fashion.
He had a proposal for the young scientists who were once his pupils and now his friends. Barbara and Jeffrey—after their initial shock and grief—agreed to work with their friend and mentor. At first, it was only to humor him. He spoke of life and vitality, and the work he was doing had certainly restored him to a vitality that they only remembered from his professorial days. He was filled with passion and purpose. If he died in that state, then sad as it would be for those who lost him, it would be a triumph for him.
He aimed to use his knowledge of the human brain and the Keysmith’s knowledge of the human body to construct an artificial body that was robust and strong, but also sophisticated enough to sustain a consciousness. His ultimate aim was to transfer his consciousness to that body.
The Keysmith’s built an artificial body. But Dr. Barnes could not find a way to overcome the transference barrier, as he called it. The consciousness needed a physical container at all times. Even in his theoretical calculations, the consciousness would be lost if it were to leave that container. It occurred to him that he might try placing his whole brain in the artificial body. The disease had not affected his brain. So even though it too was mortal, it might last much longer than his body. But that option came with hurdles of its own, not the least of which was how to keep the brain alive during the transfer and how to assure that the consciousness wouldn’t still seep out of a living brain that was removed from its host body.
About a year ago, Dr. Barnes called the Keysmith house, excited about some breakthrough. Barbara didn’t remember much about that day. She was flu-ridden and delirious. All her mental and physical energy was focused on trying to keep down the small bit of broth she had consumed that day. But she was well enough to insist that Jeffrey go and find out what the fuss was about.
That night, she managed a few hours’ sleep for the first time in a few days. Her body was still sore when she woke early that morning, just as dawn approached. She didn’t find it strange that Jeffrey wasn’t in bed with her. She had asked him to take one of the guest rooms so she wouldn’t get him sick.
When the phone rang at the early hour, she was too exhausted to be startled. She was recovering but still mostly drained. Even so, when she heard Dr. Barnes’s voice on the other end, when she heard his first words, she snapped awake.
“Barbara,” he said, in a nervous voice. “There’s been an accident. Listen…Jeffrey….”
At the word “accident,” Barbara had begun to panic. It was only on hindsight, only by practicing purposeful recall, that she was able to remember the rest of the doctor’s words.
There had been an accident. A blast of some kind. Dr. Barnes wasn’t certain. He had minor injuries, but Jeffrey had been fatally wounded. Dr. Barnes apologized for the loss of “the body,” but he rushed on with his assurances that all was not lost. He had saved her husband. He had succeeded in doing for Jeffrey what he had hoped to do for himself. He had used the artificial body they built. He had treated Jeffrey’s body to keep his brain alive. The readings indicated that Jeffrey was still there, but he was fading, and would die if he remained in the mortally wounded body. Dr. Barnes worked as quickly as he dared and removed the brain, preserved it alive, and transferred it to the artificial body. That body was now alive, and Jeffrey was most certainly in it. Dr. Barnes was still installing some parts so that Jeffrey would be able to speak to Barbara, tell her he was okay with a voice, not the same voice, but still Jeffrey’s voice.
Barbara, still half-delirious from the flu and the resulting exhaustion, didn’t think to call the police. She raced to Dr. Barnes’s home where he also kept his laboratory.
She remembered smelling the acrid smell of some kind of charge, like electricity, but more rippling and subtle. Then she came upon the men.
There was one body on an operating table, covered in a dingy white and blood-stained cloth. The other was slumped over the benchtop in his chair.
Barbara could not bring herself to look under the cloth, so she went to the man in the chair. Dr. Barnes, whom she had spoken with not half an hour prior, was dead. She checked him three times for a pulse. There was no sign of anyone else there.
She called the police.
They came. They asked her questions. They looked through the papers and notes. With both men accounted for and obvious signs of some kind of blast that left pocked scorch marks on the skin of both men, the deaths were ruled an accident. The case was closed.
Barbara was left to mourn. But she was also left to wonder. Had Dr. Barnes truly called her? That was certain, as she investigated the phone calls to and from her home. Had he told her that Jeffrey was dead? Had he asked her to call for help? Or call an ambulance? Had she been so focused on going to Jeffrey that she had not had the presence of mind to help Dr. Barnes?
Then there were darker thoughts. Was Jeffrey out there somewhere in the artificial body? The police had not found it, and Barbara had lied and told them that they had not yet constructed it. It didn’t seem a realistic enough threat, so the police took her at her word.
Dr. Barnes didn’t have a mark on him, besides the scorch marks. He hadn’t been strangled or struck. She had been afraid of that. That Jeffrey or whatever was left of his consciousness had turned against Dr. Barnes and killed him.
She was not yet done grieving and worrying when the abductions began.
She was the only person in town who was absolutely certain that they were not being visited by extraterrestrials. She was certain it was Jeffrey. Why he would emerge after so many months, she did not know. Maybe it took him that long to figure out how to work the artificial body. Why he was taking people, she did not know, though she had a notion.
Every time one of the abductees returned alive and apparently unharmed in body or mind, Barbara felt a small measure of relief. And she was just as relieved when they said they did not remember what happened to them. But she couldn’t help wondering if it was only a matter of time that someone remembered seeing her husband, or whatever he was now, or worse, only a matter of time before someone ended up dead.
She’d been researching all of the reporters and scientists who’d been arriving in town. She chose me, because I was known to keep my sources secret even to the detriment of my career. She had investigated as far as she could on her own. She needed someone to take the baton from her and run the rest of the way. Her skill was in investigating scientific mysteries. She had reached the limits of her skill in investigations into criminal mysteries. But she had another reason.
She was running out of time. That flu she’d been suffering when her husband died wasn’t just a flu. I tried not to gape when she revealed that she too had a terminal illness. She was dying and she wanted someone to know the truth. She wanted someone to help her so she could help her husband. It was conceivable to her that the abductions were something else—aliens or maniacs. If Jeffrey was dead then she would soon join him and all would be well. But if her husband was not really dead, she didn’t want to abandon him in that state, as some kind of monstrosity existing in the twilight between life and death.
She believed she had figured out how the abductions were happening. She had found traces of some kind of sleeping gas or knockout gas in the homes of those who had lost people. She figured the entire household was put to sleep. That’s why there was no need for violence. No one—including pets—was awake to attack the abductor. As for how locked doors were bypassed, she still hadn’t figured that part out.
A few weeks ago, she started testing various locales in town and found traces of the knockout gas everywhere. After that, she suspected that the effects might be widespread, maybe to everyone in town, including visitors. She tested her theory by trying to stay awake one night, but she failed. She tried again, and again. She even asked her cook to join her one night, but they both woke the next morning. The cook had forgotten all about the agreement. But Barbara hadn’t. And that was when she guessed that there might be some component of the substance she found that was affecting people’s memories as well as forcing them into sleep each night.
Barbara created an antidote. She gave herself as high a dose as she believed was safe, but it had no effect. She couldn’t stay awake.
“You’ve been in town for less than a day,” Barbara said. She pulled a syringe from her pocket and asked if she could give me the antidote. She asked if I would stay at the manor that night and hold vigil.
“That’s…a lot to ask,” I said, startled by the sudden turn of events. “I only just met you and you want to stick me with a needle. Favors usually start small and build up, if you weren’t aware. Borrow a cup of flour. Babysit your kid. That sort of thing.”
“Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind staying here and staking the place out, but—“
“I think I’m being taken.”
I said nothing, so she continued. There were some people who believed they had been taken and returned a few times before they were taken for good.
She had set up subtle traps—single hairs tied to doorknobs, that sort of thing. She had seen various subtle signs that made her believe that for the past two nights, she had been taken and then returned. She wanted to make sure that I would stay awake and bear witness if it were to happen again.
She didn’t want me to endanger myself or to interfere. Just to witness and to tell her what I witnessed. She needed to know.
That glint of mischief in her eye, that unintentional glint that had probably made her husband fall in love with her when they were kids in college, was gone. In its place was a fierce glow of intensity.
What can I say? I let the lady stick me.
I don’t know if I needed the injection. I was too wired to sleep. But I could tell after a while, that I was the only one awake. I could hear the house getting quieter. But it wasn’t just the house. I imagined the entire town growing quiet. Even the quietest of towns weren’t entirely silent. There was the rumble of a lone car, someone’s father coming home late from work. The occasional bark of a dog smelling something suspicious in the air. A cat or a raccoon. And speaking of raccoons, what about those thieves, stealing through the night and accidentally knocking over a trash can in the middle of the night, scaring someone’s little brother out of sleep.
Quiet is nice. But silence…silence is eerie. And what I began to hear as the hour grew later and later was silence.
So when I finally heard the slightest sound, I was keenly aware of it.
The house was big, and footsteps echoed, especially when the halls were empty.
I heard footsteps. Rhythmic. Precise. By the time I made it to the front of the house, he was already moving down the front of the steps. And I wondered how I didn’t hear him come in and walk down the stairs from the second floor. From behind the figure, I could see that he was holding something in his arms. A person. A woman with dark wavy hair.
I did what she asked. I followed as quietly as I could. I still didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t have a clear view yet. Was this an extraterrestrial abduction? Was it an automaton? Was it an actual man?
It wasn’t quite dark outside. Dawn was approaching. And I noticed a reddish haze in the air. Was that the knockout gas?
I hid behind the bushes that decorated the front of the house. And in the dim red light, I saw him more clearly. It was a mechanical body, humanoid, but robotic. It looked more like some kind of armored suit. At first, I thought the head was covered in a helmet. But I realized that the helmet was the head. The bottom half was metal, just like the body. But the top half…
I put a hand to my mouth to hold in a gasp. The top half of the head was a glass dome, and floating inside was a brain.
I crept along the row of hedges and managed to see the side of the mechanical man. I wasn’t being as quiet and subtle as I should have been. He either didn’t sense me or was ignoring me.
I glimpsed the front of his face. He didn’t seem to have any senses. No nose. No mouth. No eyes. The bottom half only had a circular opening in the center, where maybe a nose might be on a human face. It suddenly occurred to me that maybe all those other abductions were him looking for Barbara. Maybe this really was her not-quite-dead husband. Maybe he’d been looking for her and he returned people once he determined it wasn’t her.
Barbara was completely knocked out. Her left arm dropped from her side and swung as the mechanical man stepped mechanically onward.
A sudden light appeared, a bright green harsh light some distance away from the house, right in the middle of the yard. I saw no ship. No car. Just the light. But it was too bright to look at directly. I didn’t know what to do. It was like trying to look at the sun. I wondered if there was something behind the light, an invisible craft or something. As the mechanical man got closer and closer to the burst of light, my gut told me that I was about to lose the story. And worse, I was about to lose sight of Barbara.
I couldn’t in good conscience let the mechanical man take her if I didn’t know what he was going to do with her. Even if he was her husband. But it wasn’t just for her that I did it. I wasn’t a particularly brave man. But I was dangerously curious. And I had my moments of recklessness.
So I ran toward the mechanical man, shielding my eyes from the light. He was walking at a good pace, but still slowly enough for me to catch up. I leapt between him and the light. I held out my hands to signal him to stop.
And I prepared to die. Because I could see now that the circular hollow in the middle of his face was glinting with a point of red light. It was certainly some kind of laser, and if it wasn’t, then he certainly had a ray gun he was about to pull out. And if not that, then he was certainly strong enough to hold onto Barbara with one hand and toss me across the field and kill me with the other.
So, I was surprised when the mechanical man stopped. And somehow it was even scarier than the prospect of death-by-laser-gun, when a voice, a voice in English, came from somewhere on the mechanical man’s body and responded to my command to stop.
“Do you want to save Barbara?” the mechanical man asked, his voice hollow and without feeling.
“Of course, but—”
“Then let me take her.”
“Where are you taking her?”
“You may follow.”
With that the mechanical man started walking again, and I leapt out of his way rather than get trampled. The man and Barbara vanished into the light. I threw up my arm to shield my eyes again, and I followed.
I stepped into a laboratory. There were benchtops strewn with vials and beakers and notebooks. Equipment both familiar and unfamiliar, centrifuges, incubators, vortex machines. Tubing and wiring everywhere.
A gurney in a dark corner piled with sheets.
And though I’d never been there before, I knew where I was. It was the laboratory of Dr. Barnes.
I watched the mechanical man lay Barbara down on a cot under the only window in the room. I was still ready to intervene if he tried to harm her.
“Who are you? Are you an extraterrestrial?” I asked.
The mechanical man leaned over Barbara’s sleeping body as if watching her. “I am not extraterrestrial.”
“What’s your name?”
He didn’t answer, but tilted his head up slightly. The floating brain at the top of his head bobbed slightly.
I glanced at Barbara and rephrased.
“What was your name?”
“Your question is apt.” He turned to me now. The dim red light in the center of his face glinted at me. “The answer is Jeffrey.”
Even though I was expecting it, the answer jolted my gut. I took a breath.
“You say you’re not extraterrestrial. Then where are you from?”
“We are…your neighbors.”
“We? So there’s more than just you?”
And wonder of wonders. The one who was once called “Jeffrey,” whose wife had already told me one outrageous story, had a story of his own.
He started with, “We are extradimensional beings.”
The brain floating at the top of his head, that was his true self. He and his people were floating brains. That’s all they were. When they discovered that in a nearby dimension there were beings who were brains, but brains encased in a body that could interact with a world full of matter in myriad forms, they were fascinated. Their dimension was little more than a hazy bath of a half-vapor, half-liquid stuff he called “plasma.”
When they first perceived us, they thought we were simple organisms, and then one of them stumbled upon an autopsy and discovered that a part of us looked just like them. They found a way to replicate our bodies, slip into our dimension, and experience life as we do. It was an experiment.
Over time, they ended up forgetting who they were. At first, the forgetting was purposeful, because it was easier to adjust to having bodies if they forgot that it was an unnatural state for them. They were masters of materials on the molecular level, and they devised some kind of chemical cocktail that allowed them to forget, at least during an initial training period. After they adjusted, they no longer used the cocktail, and they would consciously remember who they were, while still doing the things needed to maintain the physical bodies—eat, sleep, breathe.
The bodies they made were in the likeness of humans, and so were mortal. They were able to make these bodies after many years of study and adapting a process they already used to replicate more brains. The floating brains had already mastered immortality. They had mastered what Dr. Barnes had been attempting to his last day. The transfer of consciousness. When a brain grew old and began to decay and die, they would grow another and transfer the consciousness to the new brain.
“She has forgotten who she really is,” the mechanical man said, turning his head toward Barbara.
I started. So, she’s nothing but a brain? I thought. But then, aren’t we all?
“She will die, the brain will die if the body dies. Unless she goes home and is restored or is transferred to another body.”
So that was the story. The mechanical man was abducting the people he was abducting and sending them back to their home dimension as brains. All the people in Midvale had forgotten who they were, even though they had stopped taking the chemical cocktail. Many had already died, of accident, disease, or old age, without knowing what and who they once were. When the floating brains in the home dimension realized what was happening, they tried to send messengers, they tried to send dreams, they tried any number of ways to reach their people.
But the people had so completely forgotten who they were, that the sight of a floating brain would have been met with disbelief and denial. It would have been—and was—considered a delusion. So the home dimension’s attempts to contact their settlers in Midvale failed, until they had the idea to lead their people to save themselves. They were the inspiration for Dr. Barnes’s breakthroughs.
“Doctor Barnes didn’t discover,” the mechanical man said. “He only re-discovered.”
He rediscovered what his people already knew. The home dimension sent the notions of consciousness transfer and the details of how it worked into his dreams. But he had difficulty in translating his dreams, maybe because his brain was connected to a human body. Human dreams are a challenge to interpret. So they gave him something else. To move things along, they sent some kind of energy through the umbilicus that connected their dimension to ours, a harmful energy, similar to radiation, that gave Dr. Barnes’s body a terminal illness. His mind now had an urgent reason to strive for a solution, self-preservation.
“That’s despicable,” I said.
The accident really was an accident. At least so far as the mechanical man could remember. When he first woke in his mechanical body, Dr. Barnes was alive and well, save some burns on his arm. They were no ordinary burns. They were caused by that same energy that had given him his disease. And as the mechanical man watched, that energy worked its way through the doctor’s body and killed him.
As soon as Jeffrey’s brain was removed from the human body and placed in the liquid matrix of the mechanical man’s glass dome, everything began to return to him. All the memories of who he was, all the knowledge he had forgotten in human form. The mechanical body gave him abilities he did not have as a brain, but without the clouding effects of a human body. It took some time, but he regained himself, and was able to discover that the accident that had killed his human body and Dr. Barnes had affected many more people in the town. The mechanical man restored the umbilicus that had broken during the accident, the one that connected the dimensions. He contacted his home dimension and told them that he would begin to bring his people home.
I had some doubts about the floating brains. Sure, to them Dr. Barnes’s body was just a machine, a valuable and meaningful one, but one that could be replaced. It’s the way I think about my car. I care about it, but if it breaks down, I won’t cry any tears. I’ll let it go and think about the good memories. But they had seen that their people didn’t remember who they were, that they valued their bodies the way a native-born human would. And they had still done what they did to poor Dr. Barnes.
Still, Jeffrey’s first instinct had been to save his people’s lives, not just the brains, but the bodies. He was trying to heal the people he could heal, and the ones he couldn’t, those were the ones he sent home.
He hadn’t started with Barbara. When I asked him why, he said that there were others whose injuries were more severe. He said that no one would feel it. The harmful energy was painless even until the moment of death.
So I guessed the floating brains were like us in that regard. Some were lousy. Some were decent.
“How do you know who’s human and who’s not?” I asked. “Am I…I’m not from this town. Does that mean…?”
“You are human.”
I sighed. Jeffrey explained that it was only the residents of Midvale who were actually floating brains. Many had false memories of having lived elsewhere, or having different hometowns. Those were all the memories that were implanted during their training period, memories that solidified when the forgetfulness took hold. A few people had moved into town who were not floating brains, and a few people had moved away who were. Jeffrey would sort it out once he treated the sick.
I had to wonder…is this what humanity would become, without our bodies? Would we be able to conceive of things beyond our wildest dreams and unfettered imaginings? Would we attain immortality? Would we perceive no limits to time and space? And would the price be that we would never be able to use our senses? Never hear a song or sing it. Never see the dazzling colors of a flower field. Never taste the cool sweetness of ice cream. Never…never feel the hand of a loved one pressing your shoulder in comfort and solidarity. What a price to pay. I would not pay it.
“You’re not going to let me tell the story, are you?” I asked.
“You may tell it.” He turned away from me. “But who would believe it?”
I looked at Barbara. “She would.” I stepped toward them. “Hey, wake her up. Tell her to her face what’s going on. Let her choose to go with you.”
“It’s the decent thing to do. And anyway, you once loved her. When you were human.”
The mechanical man reached out his hand slowly and touched the dark waves of her hair.
I stared at the floating brain in the glass dome and the tender pose of the hard mechanical hand.
“Maybe you still are,” I said.
Copyright © 2017. Story by Nila L. Patel. Artwork: “The Barnes and Keysmith Project” by Sanjay Patel.