Sentinel in Black by Jenny Saypaw

Sentinel in Black - Jenny Saypaw

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Note: Sentinel in Black first appeared in “Jim and Blair Do the Movies” from Blackfly Press. The zine is still available for order. Adapted from screenplay by Jenny Saypaw.

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A million stars winked in the velvety purple-black of the desert night sky. Nocturnal insects flitted through the air oblivious to the desiccating heat. A particularly large specimen of moth—one of those big, beautiful, multi-coloured, four-winged jobs—glided along effortlessly on the hot Texas breeze.

Jim Ellison blinked as the insect wafted across his line of vision. He lowered his night scope, rubbed the back of his neck tiredly, and allowed his eyes to focus on the fragile creature as it fluttered past him before turning right and proceeding down the centre of the dirt road, making lazy loop-the-loops. The moth was like a flame to which all of his senses were drawn. He was so mesmerized that he failed to notice the increasing distance over which he continued to perceive the creature.

Splat! The insect died unceremoniously, but juicily, against the windshield of a dirty white van.

The driver turned on his wipers, smearing the remains all over. Through the slimy glass Ellison would see a middle-aged man holding onto the steering wheel with an unsteady grip and hunched forward peering through the mess.

“Goddamn bugs!” the driver muttered. Jim heard the words as clearly as if he were sitting in the van himself.

The man squirted some wiper fluid onto the glass, which cleared it up a bit—just enough for him to make out a grouping of headlights, eight of them, all pointed at him, sealing off the road.

He bit his lip and called in Spanish over his shoulder to the back of the van, “Deja me hablar.”

“Let me do the talking,” Jim translated under his breath.

“Huh?” his partner asked, straightening up from where he’d been slumped across the steering wheel half asleep.

Jim recovered rapidly. So far Jack had never caught him in one of the strange fugues he sometimes suffered. “Show time,” he said, indicating the scene unrolling a few hundred yards away.

— The van had slowed to a stop in front of the parked cars, all government-issue prim-and-proper four-door sedans with “INS” stencilled on the sides. Seven or eight immigration agents stood menacingly in front of the cars. Their apparent leader stepped forward and came up to the window, which the flustered driver proceeded to roll down nervously.

Agent Carolyn Plummer—steely-eyed, coolly elegant, and obviously government-issue herself—looked at him and sighed. “Well, if it isn’t Nick the Dick... What a surprise. Where’re you coming from?”

“I was fishing in Cuernavaca.” The tone was surly.

“Sure you were. What do you say we have a look at your catch?”

The other agents surrounded the van as Nick and their leader spoke. At a hand signal from the woman, the agents flung open the rear doors, revealing a dozen frightened Mexicans, obviously hopeful immigrants without official green cards.

Plummer shook her head in her best imitation of a game warden who’d just caught a poacher with game fish out of season. “Tsk. Tsk. Me, I woulda thrown ‘em back.”

She raised her voice so that the illegal passengers in the back could hear her clearly. “Vamanos. Fuera. Hagan una lina!”

Men, women and even children piled forth and formed a straggling line in the sand. Plummer moved forward to observe the dispirited group. “What do you get, Nick?” she asked over her shoulder. “Hundred bucks a head? Two hundred? I hope you saved it all for your lawyer, pal, ‘cause you’re gonna need—”

The appearance of a big black 1986 Ford LTD cut Plummer off in mid-tirade. It approached fast, its engine whining as it barrelled down the road toward them. Several of the agents reflexively hauled out their weapons.

The new car pulled a hard right, went off the road and spun around the INS cars before squealing to a sideways halt, silhouetted in front of their headlights.

Jim Ellison and Jack Pendergast climbed nonchalantly out of the LTD. Dressed in plain black suits, crisp white shirts, simple black ties, and shiny black shoes, their clothing and demeanour radiated calm self-assurance combined with a sense of anonymous power. “We’ll take it from here,” Jim announced.

Agent Plummer gritted her teeth, thrust her chin forward aggressively and confronted the newcomers. “Who the hell are you?”

Without a blink, the two men pulled forth identical black wallets, flipped them open with practiced ease, flashed their IDs, then closed and pocketed the holders before anyone caught more than a passing glimpse of their contents.

Ellison looked the tall woman over coolly before replying, “INS, Division 6.”

“Division 6? I’ve never heard of Division 6.”

“Really?” He cocked a sardonic eyebrow, before turning away dismissively.

The only sound in the desert was the soft thud of the patent-leather shoes as the two men moved past the agents and approached the row of nervous immigrants.

“What’re we thinking, Pee?”

“Tough call, Jay,” Jack replied.

The older man walked down the row, studying the faces, greeting each one cheerily in Spanish. “!Oye! Que pasa, coma estas? Hey!”

Looking into the withered visage of an old woman, he continued, “No se preocupe, abuela. Bienvenida a los Estados Unidos. A donde vas? San Antonio? Buscando trabajo, no? Buena suerta.”

When she gave him a hesitant smile and a bob of the head to indicate that she was indeed looking for work in San Antonio, Jack (or ‘Pee’ as he was called in public) turned to the man beside her. “Es un placer verle aqui.”

With the same calm demeanour, he continued down the line greeting each one with a friendly welcome to the United States. One by one the faces relaxed at the soothingly warm words.

But when he came to the fifth guy, a rather scruffy middle-aged Mexican in a dirty serape, his message changed although he kept to the same cheery tone. “Que dices si te rompo la cara?”

The fellow smiled and nodded. Jack stopped, his own smile broadening. He dropped a hand on the man’s shoulder and continued, “No hablas ni una palabra del Espanol, verdad, amigo?”

The guy smiled even more broadly and nodded happily. He missed his travelling companions staring at him questioningly as he failed to react to being threatened and then accused of not speaking a word of Spanish.

Jack flicked his gaze at Jim. “We’ve got a winner.”

He then turned to the remaining illegals and told them, “Los restos estan libres a irse. Largense!”

Carolyn Plummer broke abruptly from her stupor. “Sir!”

Ignoring the interruption, he gestured toward the van and continued, “Tomen el camion, y vayeuse.”

“Sir, you can’t just—” she spluttered.

“Don’t ‘Sir’ me! You have no idea who you’re dealing with!” He stared the woman down.

There was total silence. Then the driver grinned and jumped back into the front seat of the van, while the others scrambled into the rear. He gunned the motor and roared off down the road.

The frozen tableau broke as Jim walked over and gripped the prisoner’s arm. He and Jack exchanged a meaningful glance. Then Jack blandly informed Plummer and her agents, “We’re gonna have a little chat with our friend here. You boys can hit the road … and keep on protecting us from dangerous aliens.”

The men in black escorted their captive across the road and over a small rise, leaving the stunned INS agents standing alone in the roadway. They were still close enough to hear the babble that broke out behind them.

“You ever heard of Division 6?” Plummer ground out in frustration.

“There is no Division 6,” someone replied.

“Who are those guys?” demanded several of the agents in unison.

The voices faded behind them as they led the detainee deeper into the desert brush. He moved along quietly and made no effort to escape.

Once they reached a small clearing, Jim pulled an enormous handgun from a shoulder holster and moved back a pace or two, covering their captive.

Jack kept his arm draped around the man’s hunched shoulders. He began to speak softly into the Mexican’s ear, “I think you jumped off the bus in the wrong part of town, amigo. In fact, I’ll bet dollars to pesos that you’re not—” He pulled a small laser device from a side pocket, then zipped it neatly down the front of the man’s clothes. “—from anywhere near here.”

The sliced clothing fell to the ground, revealing an inhuman shape underneath. The scaly creature was about four-and-a-half feet tall, with a heavily fanged snout, snail-like tentacles, and independently moving eyes on stalks at the top of his head. The only part of his camouflage that had not crumpled to the ground was the humanoid ‘head’, which he still lamely held in one of his hands. It was propped up by a stick, like a puppet, and it continued to make facial expressions as he held it.

“Mikey?! When did they let you out of jail?”

Mikey replied with a combination of grunts, squeaks, and spraying saliva.

“Political refugee. Right.”

Jim chimed in, “You know how many treaty articles you’ve just violated?”

Mikey made a lame squeak. The head wobbled on its pole.

“One, my ass. Try seven,” Jack growled.

Jim took up where his partner left off. “From unauthorized immigration to failure to properly inoculate prior to landing…”

Mikey objected loudly. Drops of spittle flew right and left.

“Okay, that’s enough.” Jim tapped his gun meaningfully. “Hand me your head and put up your arms.”

A stifled gasp came from the darkness behind Mikey.

One of the alien’s eyes, on a tall stalk, whipped around.

There stood Carolyn Plummer, just at the top of the rise, her jaw hanging open and an expression of frozen shock plastered across her face.

“Oh, shit!” Jim swore.

She screamed.

Moving in a blur, Mikey ripped free of the remains of his Mexican disguise and twirled around. The unexpected motion knocked Jack into Jim, causing the younger Agent to drop his gun as the two went down in a tangle of arms and legs.

Mikey crouched, tensed and then sprang straight at the terrified INS Agent. He was yelling obscenities in his own language. It came to the humans’ ears as a grating screech.

Plummer froze.

“Jack! Shoot him!” Jim yelled, forgetting to call his partner ‘Pee’ during the moment of panic.

Pendergast struggled to roll over and change the controls on the laser. His fingers fumbled on the tiny buttons, and the weapon slid out of his hands.

“Jack, for Christ’s sake—”

Jim scuttled backwards trying to find his own fallen gun.

Mikey kept moving, covering the last few yards to Plummer in a matter of seconds. He bounded onto a rock and launched himself into the air, arms widespread and jaws cranked wide open.

There was a sizzling sound, accompanied by a brilliant white flash. Jim had finally found his gun. The alien erupted in a geyser of blue goo. The mess splattered in huge globs all over the ground, the mesquite trees and Plummer’s petrified face. An odour like over-ripe peaches filled the air.

Trying not to gag at the sickly sweet smell, Jim hauled himself to his feet, stepped over Jack—who was still hunting for his laser—and wobbled over to the female Agent. He slid a comforting arm around her twitchy shoulders and led her back into the clearing away from the pool of bubbling goo, which was all that remained of Mikey.

“Th… th… th—”

Jim tried to help out. “That.”

The trembling woman gasped, “That wasn’t… wasn’t… wasn’t—”

“Human, I know. Oops. Got some entrails on you.”

He fished out a handkerchief and started to wipe off her face. All the time she was staring back over his shoulder at the place where the alien creature had blown up. Then she looked up at the stars.

At that moment the other INS agents came running over the rise, guns in hand. They stopped when they saw their white-faced superior start to shake and then crumple into the arms of the tall man in black.

Jack had finally found his weapon. He pocketed it surreptitiously and stood up. “Okay, everybody,” he said, “situation’s under control, calm down.” He stepped into the centre of the clearing. “If you’ll just give me your attention for a moment, I’ll tell you what happened.”

He ignored the whine of car engines in the distance and the flashing of headlights as more cars arrived on the scene. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a tubular metallic mechanism the size of a pocket recorder. He checked his watch, figured in his head, then dialled an electronic control on the side of the device up to ‘08’.

After putting on incongruous sunglasses, he held the apparatus up high until every eye was focused on it.

“This is called a ‘neuralyzer’. A gift from some friends from out of town. The red eye here—” He pointed to the blinking LED. “—isolates and measures the electronic impulses in your brain. More specifically, the ones for memory.”

In the background six newcomers, all wearing black suits and dark sunglasses, marched purposefully over the hill. Jack immediately started barking out orders. “Gimme a spray burn on the perimeter, please; holes at 40, 60, and 80.”

One of Plummer’s men stirred at that point. “What in the hell is going on?!”

“Exactly the right question,” Jack responded. “And the answer lies right… here. Pay attention.” He waved the mechanism to draw everyone’s eyes back to it.

“Who are you, really?” Plummer asked as Jim led her over to join her men.

“Really?” He traced a finger across her cheekbone. “I’m just a figment of your imagination.”

Then he stepped back beside Jack, who continued to hold the neuralyzer aloft. The INS Agents peered at it questioningly.

Jim slipped on his own black sunglasses, just a heartbeat before Jack pushed a button on the side of the device. He hated the blinding flash he knew was coming. Even through the darkened lenses, it seared his eyeballs. He blinked the tears out of his watering eyes and wondered briefly if Jack and the others felt the effects as strongly as he did. He was sure that someday he would zone during the neuralyzer’s operation.

Plummer and her men stood unmoving, faces slack and eyes staring blankly. It was how everyone ended up after being exposed unprotected to that burst of light.

“God, we’re a gullible breed,” Jack muttered. He sat down abruptly on a dusty rock and put his head in his hands, oblivious to tongues of fire blasting from flame throwers all around him.

It took the men in black only a few minutes to set the desert bush ablaze in the spots Jack had indicated. They’d barely completed the job when the INS agents began to stir as though coming awake from a concussion.

Jim waited for Jack to resume his spiel, but the older man just sat on the stone and rocked back and forth.

So Jim took over. “I mean it, fellas, you are lucky to be alive after a blast like that.”

The Agents looked around, confused.

“Wha… what blast?” Plummer asked. She was clearly befuddled.

He gestured behind himself, where his comrades were now using fire extinguishers to douse the flames they themselves had just started.

“Underground gas vein, m’am. You guys need to exercise more caution before discharging your firearms.” He slid a finger under her chin and tilted her face up so that she was looking directly into his eyes. “Especially you.” The gesture turned into a light caress. He hated lying to this lady even though they’d only just met. There was something compelling about her that drew him from his usual sense of disconnection with life.

Someone jostled them and the moment of pregnant possibility ended.

Without a word, she turned away and gathered up her men. They exited quickly. She was the only one of the group to stop at the top of the rise and gaze back over her shoulder before walking away into the night.

Jack was still sitting on his rock, only now his head was tilted back and he was staring up at the night sky, his sunglasses dangling idly from one hand. He had the look of a man who’d reached the breaking point. Jim wandered over and sat down beside him.

Without changing position, Jack mumbled, “I’m sorry. About… back there.”

“Happens.”

“Didn’t used to.” He held up his hands, which displayed a slight tremble from age. “The spirit’s willing, Slick, but the rest of me—” His voice trailed off as he turned his attention back to the million stars shining overhead. “They’re beautiful, aren’t they?”

“What?” Jim was disconcerted by the change of topic.

“The stars. We never just… look. Anymore.”

Their eyes met and held.

“I’ll tell ya, Jay. I will miss the chase.”

Jim pulled his own neuralyzer from his pocket and looked down at it sadly. “No. You won’t.”

? ? ? ? ? The campus of Rainier University was effectively deserted at 3:00 in the morning. The silence was broken only by the slap of running feet against pavement.

Blair Sandburg swerved to avoid the bench in front of the fountain at Hargrove Hall. The man he was pursuing had simply swarmed over the top of it without a break in stride. Both men were well in advance of the two campus security guards huffing along behind them.

“Stop! Cascade PD,” Blair yelled. He fumbled his observer pass out of his pocket and brandished it as he ran. He hoped it would be enough to fake out the perp into thinking it was the real thing. If anything, however, the sight of the so-called ‘badge’ made the fleeing man run faster.

Caught up in the adrenalin high of the chase, Blair barely noticed when the more over-weight of the two campus cops dropped out of the race. The panting man flopped down on the bench and heaved out an “All yours, guys!”

The overlook to the university’s sunken rose garden was straight ahead. Seemingly oblivious to the fact that it was a thirty-foot drop, the quarry hurdled the guardrail and leaped to the ground below.

“Shit!” Sandburg swore at the unexpected manoeuvre, but he didn’t waste a second. He, too, vaulted the guardrail—and found his landing cushioned by a thick boxwood hedge. He crawled out of the broken branches and scrambled to his feet, ignoring the splutters of surprise coming from a couple of college students who’d been making out behind the bush.

He glanced up and saw the second security guard leaning over the holding wall and waving him on.

He waved back to let the guy know he’d seen him, then took off running again. From the corner of his eye, he saw the perp hang a left out the garden gate and head straight down the waterside drive as fast as he could go.

“Dammit, man, you’re making me sweat up my gear! I was planning on wearing this same outfit to the opening after I got the new exhibit set up.” He tried not to think of the boxes of Peruvian artefacts opened and only half catalogued back at Hargrove Hall. There was no way now that he was going to get everything set up before the dean and the financial committee showed up for the advanced viewing set for 8:00 a.m.

A Cascade Herald delivery truck cruised past him. The back door had been left open to make it easier to throw bundles of newspapers out at their drops. The vehicle wasn’t going particularly fast, but it was still making better time than he could on foot. Without hesitation he increased his pace until he caught up with the truck. He grabbed the door handle and hauled himself inside.

“Why did this guy have to pick my exhibit to steal something out of?” Blair groused to himself. “I’d have thought there were better pickings in the medieval jewellery exhibit that Dr. Goodman was setting up across the hall.”

He crouched in the doorway ready to spring. “And why, oh why, am I acting like some kind of hero cop?! I’m an anthropologist, for goodness sake. Mom told me that hanging around police to do my dissertation on closed societies was not a good idea. I don’t think she thought it’d rub off this much on me though.”

The truck came even with the fleeing thief. “Yo, man, your luck just ran out,” he yelled before launching himself from the back of the moving truck and tackling the perp to the ground.

The man appeared dazed at first. He didn’t fight back as Blair rolled him over and sat on his chest.

“He’s coming! He’s coming!” the man babbled. His face was contorted with fear.

Blair had no idea who ‘he’ was, but responded, “And when he gets here, I’ll kick his ass too.”

Then his mind went blank. Everything so far had been pure gut instinct. But now he’d caught his prey and he had no idea what to do. He may have been riding and observing with the detectives of Major Crime over the last few months, but that didn’t make him a trained cop. Then he remembered the fur-lined cuffs in his back pocket. He and Chris had used them on a number of memorable occasions, and he’d started carrying them with him in case an unplanned opportunity arose with the uninhibited beauty.

Blair pulled the cuffs out and prepared to slap them on his captive. The man blinked at the sight of the fur. There was nothing unusual about that. It was the following blink that threw Sandburg. A second set of translucent, milky white eyelids, underneath the regular eyelids, blinked too.

That moment of startled distraction was all the time the guy needed to pull out a weapon—the strangest looking gun the anthropologist had ever seen, even in science fiction movies.

On total autonomic reflex, Blair batted the sinister contraption out of the man’s hand. It smashed into a stone wall separating the road from the beach, where it shattered into a million pieces.

“What the—”

The man… creature… whatever… heaved himself up, throwing Blair over backwards. He kicked his captor viciously in the nuts, then scrambled to his feet and took off again.

Blair wobbled to his feet, clutching his aching groin. He swore in several different native dialects, then staggered off in pursuit.

Leaping over a parked car, the perp scaled the wooden fence around the Rainier Art Gallery. Blair followed as best he could despite the pain; but by the time he’d clambered over the top and into the gallery’s enclosed garden, there was no sign of his quarry among the deep shadows.

There was a flicker of motion behind him. Suddenly the creature soared over his head in a wild leap and landed on the third-story roof of the building. He wavered for a moment on the edge, then threw himself forward onto the flat gravelled surface.

Blair closed his eyes and shook his head. “Did I really see what I just saw?” he asked himself.

He looked around and noticed a fire escape on the side of the building. He scrambled up it, clamping down on his fear of heights. He heard a stream of curses in an unknown tongue. Evidently the thief had found all the roof exits locked.

Blair popped up over the edge just as the man turned and headed in desperation for the fire escape. They collided with a resounding whump.

“Wassup?” the anthropologist asked. He grabbed for the antique Peruvian medallion the thief still held clutched in his left hand.

The perp screamed inhumanly and panicked. He back-pedalled toward the edge of the roof. “He’s coming! I thought this was it, but it’s not. He’s coming because I failed, and now he’ll kill me too!”

“Stop!” The fellow was far too near the brink for it to be safe.

“You don’t understand. Your world is gonna end,” the terrified man babbled. He wavered with his heels hanging over the edge. He blinked. Once more the double set of eyelids flickered closed and then open.

“What are you?!”

The creature looked down, glanced back at Blair and decided. He threw his arms wide and fell screaming to his death.

? ? ? ? ? A couple of hours later an exhausted Blair Sandburg sat in an interrogation room at the Cascade PD. He’d given up all hope of being allowed to return to the university in time to get his exhibit set up for the dean’s morning tour. Now he slumped forward with his head in his hands and waited wearily for Detective Brown to ask the same questions he’d been asking ever since they’d brought him in.

“ ‘Perpetrator then blinked two sets of eyelids.’ You mean ‘blinked with both eyes’?”

“No, sir. He blinked once with one set, then again with another completely different set.”

“Sort of a low beam, high beam,” chimed in one of the campus cops seated to his right.

Brown glared the man into silence before turning back to Blair. “Was that before or after he drew the weapon which you claim evaporated into a million pieces?”

“After, sir.”

“And why do you suppose the campus security guards saw neither of these two events?”

Blair looked over at the middle-aged men, who hid smirks behind their hands. They’d been teasing him mercilessly about his ‘alien’ every time the real cops stepped out of the room. He allowed his temper to get the better of him. “ ‘Cause they’ve gotten a little soggy in the midsection. And they couldn’t keep up, sir.”

The larger of the two jumped to his feet and growled, “Hey, Sandburg, if you were half the man I am—”

“What do you mean? I am half the man you are.”

“What the hell is your problem?”

“My problem is you being all up in my damn face ever since we got here.”

The fat man glowered back, then turned to the police detective, “I think he threw him off the roof. Ten minutes—your best shot.”

Brown cut the man off before he could elaborate further. “Stinson! I want to talk to you and your partner outside. Now.”

“You need ten minutes on a Stairmaster, you—” Blair shouted after Stinson through the closing door.

He was alone for only a few minutes before the door on the other side of the room opened silently. A long-legged brunette in a short lab coat snuck into the room. There were dark circles under her eyes, and she looked like she had just been dragged out of bed (which she had) and saw a spaceman (which she did). She looked over her shoulder once, then slid over beside the detainee.

“Samantha Weaver. Deputy Medical Examiner. I believe you. I opened him up.” Her eyes shifted nervously. “Find me at the morgue. In the basement. I’ll tell you what I found.”

With that she turned and beat a hasty retreat.

“Hey… Wait a minute. Wait a minute.”

She turned briefly at the door, “You have really pretty eyes.”

“Uh…”

Before he could get his composure back, she was out the door. He heard the click of her heels retreating toward the stairwell around the corner. She was stopped before she made it there.

“Dr. Weaver, from the Coroner’s Office? Working on the John Doe?”

Blair twisted in his chair to get a better look through the half-open venetian blinds. All he could see was Samantha, facing whoever had approached her from the hallway.

“Yes. That’s right.”

“Good.” The voice sounded satisfied. “Would you look right here, please.”

Samantha stepped forward, moving out of Blair’s line of sight. “Look where?”

Sandburg stretched even further in his seat, curious to find out what was going on. Suddenly there was a blinding flash from the corridor.

Really interested now, Blair started to get up; but he’d barely made it to his feet when the unknown person from the hall stepped into the room and closed the door behind him.

“Some night, huh?” The newcomer was tall and buff, almost movie-star handsome in his fitted black suit and solid black tie. He was making an effort to appear friendly, but the steeliness in his blue eyes told a different story.

The young man replied hesitantly, “Oh, yeah, some night.” He started edging toward the door through which Detective Brown had exited earlier.

“They were gills.” The statement was flat. The stare that went with the words was equally flat.

Blair stopped his retreat. He looked into the man’s face and waited silently.

“Not eyelids,” continued the interloper.

Blair thought of several dozen things to ask. He settled on “Who are you?”

His questioner failed to respond. “Did he say anything to you?” the man asked instead.

The anthropologist observer in Blair paused to take stock of the situation. He quickly realized this fellow was using his size and commanding presence to take the upper hand—not to mention that his perfectly tailored black suit and crisp white shirt were designed to radiate authority. The contrast to his own scruffy jeans, black tee and red plaid flannel shirt should be making Blair feel ill at ease and inadequate. Instead, the contrast was the jolt that he needed to get his backbone back. After all, he had just finished facing down his dissertation committee and winning his hard-earned doctorate. Dealing with Mr. Picture Perfect should be a cake walk in comparison.

So, he smiled affably and replied, “Yeah, sure. He said the world was coming to an end.”

If he’d expected a change in expression, he didn’t get it. Instead the man retorted in a bland tone of voice, “Did he say when?”

Blair couldn’t control his own reaction. It looked like this guy actually was taking the statement at face value. It was just way too bizarre. “You’re kidding, right?”

The fellow simply ignored Blair’s astonishment and asked another question, “Would you recognize his weapon if you saw it again?”

Okay, if that’s the way he wants it … I can play this game too. Blair put his hands in his pockets and tried to recover an air of nonchalance. “Absolutely.”

For the first time an emotion flickered over the flawlessly chiselled features. It was barely the trace of a smile, but face went from stone to human—very attractively human, indeed. “Let’s take a ride.”

Blair blinked. “Huh? The police haven’t finished interviewing me yet. I’ve still got to sign a statement and do a ton of paperwork.”

“It’s all taken care of.”

At that point, Detective Brown stuck his head into the interrogation room, smiled and gave the young anthropologist the thumbs up. “Good work, Dr. Sandburg. Looks like you learned to do things right while you were riding around with our officers.”

Sandburg looked at the detective, then at the man in black. He shrugged and followed him out of the room.

Minutes later they were seated in a big, boxy black Ford LTD heading toward the docks. Once behind the wheel, the agent seemed far more at ease and approachable. That made Blair relax too.

The agent apparently wanted to make conversation as they drove. “You ran that guy down on foot? That’s tough. That’s double tough.”

Blair grinned and blushed. It wasn’t often that he got complimented by big jock types.

A black van sailed past them going in the opposite direction. Jim waved to the driver, who saluted him back.

Blair followed the interchange with interest. He decided it was time to start his own interrogation. “So who’re you with?”

Jim said nothing.

Not at all discouraged, Blair continued, “You got the plain clothes, the government-issued wheels. Secret Service? CIA?”

Still the only answer he received was silence.

Blair allowed his eyes to rove over the interior of the older-model car. “Yeah, well, whoever it is, you’re short on funding.”

“Nothing is what it seems, kid.”

“Oh, yeah, my bad—a ‘86 Ford LTD. That’s a luxury ride. C’mon, who’re ya with?”

Jim pulled the car to a stop. He replied blandly, “I’m part of a secret organization that monitors and polices alien activity on earth.” Leaving his young companion with his jaw hanging open, he undid his seatbelt and climbed out.

Blair closed his mouth. He had to make a conscious effort to do so. “I wonder when I’m gonna get a straight answer,” he grumbled before following the government man to a rundown pawnshop only a few feet from the parking spot.

Perplexed, he looked around. “This is where we’re going?”

Jim simply started for the door.

“Jack Jeebs? I know this place. I was in here a couple of times when I was riding with the uniforms. Guy buys from chain snatchers. Doesn’t even sell guns.”

“Really?”

“All right, you think it’s worth shaking him up, fine. I’ll stay out of the way. But after, man, I want some answers.”

“Just go with the flow, Chief.”

They entered the dimly lit shop. It was so cluttered and dirty that Blair half expected to see cockroaches crawling over the furniture. Jack Jeebs was in his usual spot behind the counter. From past visits to the establishment, Blair knew that the sleazy, sarcastic proprietor was not easily intimidated.

“Well, well, Mr. Sandburg. I remember you. Still riding with the fuzz, I see. Are you here to watch me get busted? Sorry, but you’re outta luck today. Everything here is legit this time.” He glanced down at a display of Rolexes. “Oh, hey, geez, how’d these get here? I thought I turned ‘em in to the proper authorities.” He casually brushed the watches off the counter.

Jim said nothing, so Blair spoke up. After all, he’d been told to ‘go with the flow’. “Way I hear it, Jeebs, you into something a little hotter than some stolen Rolexes.”

Jeebs chuckled and smiled guilelessly. “Sure—I’m a big crack dealer now. I just work here because I love the hours.”

Blair decided that in the circumstances he should appear pissed. So, he grabbed the unkempt dealer by the collar and growled, “I’m talking about guns, Jeebs. High-tech stuff.”

“C’mon, Sandburg, whatcha see is what I got. ‘Sides—” He brushed Blair away. “—you’re not really a cop. I don’t gotta listen to a pipsqueak like you.”

A cold, clear voice interrupted, “Why don’t you show him the imports, Jeebs.”

At the intervention, Jeebs suddenly paled, a look of fear coming over his face. “H-hiya, Jay, how are you?”

“The imports, Jeebs. Now.”

“You know I got outta that business a long time ago, Jay.”

Jim shook his head sadly. “Why do you lie to me? I hate it when you lie.”

He pulled out a gun and aimed it at Jeebs’ forehead.

“Whoa, whoa, Jay, hold on a minute here…”

“I’m going to count to three.”

Sandburg figured that there was no way the government agent would actually pull the trigger. Since the threat seemed to be giving the pawnshop owner second thoughts, he joined in the routine. “He’ll do it, Jeebs.”

“One.” Jim’s voice was cold.

“I’ve seen him do it.”

“Two.”

“Talk to me, Jeebs, he’s crazy when he’s like this.” Blair noticed that Jim’s face was stony except for a muscle twitch in the cheek. The man was not impressed. “He’s always crazy,” he told Blair. He snickered and looked directly into Jim’s eyes. “Take a cruise. Get a massage—”

“Three.”

KA-BOOM! Jim blew Jeebs’ head off and the body collapsed to the floor. There was amazingly little blood.

Blair was horror-struck. He couldn’t believe that his companion had just calmly, cold-bloodedly killed another human being. Shock coursed through his body and left him shaking. “Puh… puh… put the gun d-d-down,” he stammered. “Are you kuh… kuh… crazy?”

“I warned him.”

“You… you shot him!” Blair’s voice rose in pitch until it was a barely audible squeak.

“You warned him.”

“Uh—” I’ve got to do something, he thought, trying not to hyperventilate. Don’t want anybody else gettin’ hurt. “Uh— Citizen’s arrest. Just put down tha… that gun. Now!”

“Will you relax?”

For the second time in less than 8 hours, mild-mannered anthropologist Blair Sandburg found himself engaging in heroics. He crouched and prepared to spring at the bigger man.

He was brought to a halt by an irritated voice issuing from behind him: “Don’t do that.”

Blair whirled around. Jeebs’ body was no longer lying on the floor. It had managed to climb to its feet and stood swaying, the blood-splattered hands clinging to the counter. A new head was sprouting from the body’s shoulders. Within four to five seconds it grew from the size of a walnut to normal human size. The eyes blinked. Jeebs was very definitely alive.

While Blair remained frozen in surprise, Jim calmly walked over and shoved his gun up against Jeebs’ baby-soft new cheek.

“Do you know how much that hurts?” Jeebs asked. The tone was distinctly cranky.

Jim tapped the gun against the smooth cheek. “Show us what you got, Jeebs. Or I’ll use up another one.”

That was all the motivation the pawnshop owner needed to set him in motion. He hit a button on the underside of the counter, which promptly flipped over, revealing yet another dusty shelf piled high with junk—but this was all alien junk. Weapons, mostly—bizarre, otherworldly weapons of all shapes and sizes.

“Sandburg?” Jim motioned him over to check out the display.

Blair, still dazed by Jeebs’ regrown head, glanced down at the small arsenal. Everything was weird and unusual, although the second gun from the right—if it actually was a gun—looked slightly familiar.

“Uh, this one. This is what I saw… I think.”

Jim scowled at Jeebs. “You sold a carbonizer with implosion capacity to an unlicensed cephlapoid!”

“He looked all right to me.”

“A carbonizer is an assassin’s weapon, buddy. Who was the target?”

“I don’t know.”

Jim raised the weapon again, threatening. “Jeebs!” Menace dripped from the single syllable.

“I don’t know!” His expression added that he wouldn’t have cared if he had known.

Jim contemplated the scowling shop owner, then lowered his gun. He gestured to the shelf full of weapons. “This is all confiscated. All of it. I want you on the next transport off this rock. Or I’ll shoot you where it doesn’t grow back.”

Jeebs nodded, point taken.

The black-clad agent turned on his heel and stalked out. Shaken, Blair followed. He staggered along blindly, trying to get the day’s events straight in his head. “The eyelids, fine… and the jumping thing… and the gun… okay, but the head?”

“Searching for a handle on the moment here? A place to file all this?” The question was warm and friendly in stark contrast to the interrogation through which the agent had just put Jeebs.

“See … a head doesn’t do that. It doesn’t just grow back.” He looked into his companion’s grave expression and tried not to drown in pools of blue. “What’s going on?”

The eyes shimmered with compassion, but the words were cold: “Can’t help you, Chief. Only comfort I can offer is that tomorrow, you won’t remember a thing.”

“Oh, no. This I’m gonna remember for a long, long time.”

— Jim sighed and pulled the neuralyzer from his pocket. He hesitated for the briefest of moments—as if this particular time was different than all the others. Hell, he thought to himself, it is different. There’s something about this hyperactive kid … something special that just meshes. We made a really good team back there, like we were meant to be— He chopped the thought off abruptly as an image of two bodies entwined flashed before his mind’s eye.

He slid on his sunglasses—as much to mask his feelings as to prepare for using the device. “Ever see one of these?” he asked.

“No,” Sandburg replied. Curious as a child, the young man reached out his hand to touch the metal tube. Their fingers brushed, and a jolt of electricity came from the contact. Jim flinched, pressing involuntarily on the trigger before he was ready.

? ? ? ? ? Blair’s consciousness swam up to the light through murky layers of darkness. He felt disorientated… dazed. There was a hole in the back of his mind. He probed it gently, as he would a sore tooth. There was nothing there—literally nothing there.

He brought his eyes to focus, and found himself seated in a restaurant booth across the table from the gorgeous hunk he’d met at Major Crime after catching the thief from the Peruvian exhibit. The man was a government agent of some kind, working with the Cascade PD to catch art smugglers. Wait! That didn’t feel right. He rubbed his throbbing forehead, but earlier events became even hazier in his jumbled memory.

The man—Jay … Jay Something … Why couldn’t he remember the full name? —was in the midst of telling a joke. Blue eyes twinkled as he finished up: “—and the wife says yeah, Harry, I know, but this one’s eating my popcorn!” He chuckled wickedly at the tag line. Blair found the sound incredibly sexy.

He blushed at the unbidden thought and looked down. There was a half-eaten order of fajitas and several empty bottles of beer scattered across the tabletop.

“Uh…”

Jay Whoever checked his watch. “Whoops. Gotta run. Thanks for the food and drinks.”

That brought Blair back to reality. “Where am I?”

“See what I mean about tequila? You’re a bright young man, Dr. Sandburg. Just lay off the sauce.” He stood and smiled slightly. “I’ll see you tomorrow, nine a.m. sharp.” Then he turned and walked out.

Sandburg checked his own watch. It looked like a lot more time had passed than he could account for.

A blowsy waitress appeared at his shoulder, expression deadened with fatigue. “Another beer?”

Blair shook his head. It wasn’t like him to over-indulge in alcohol. “Coffee. Please.” Maybe the caffeine would clear his head.

She walked off, her run-down sneakers squeaking on the black and white tile floor.

Blair forgot about her as soon as she turned away. He looked at the littered table and discovered a business card lying next to his plate. Bold handwriting proclaimed, “Dr. Blair Sandburg, Saturday, 9 a.m., 504 Bloxham Drive.”

He stared at it, puzzled. Then he picked it up and turned it over. There wasn’t much there—no name, no phone or fax number, no e-mail address. Just three little letters, dead in the middle of the card: MIB.

? ? ? ? ?

The night was quiet in upstate Washington farm country. A lonely farmhouse stood amid an extensive orchard of ripening Granny Smith apples. Inside the peace was broken by a litany of complaints from the farm’s owner. Edgar Smith sat at the kitchen table and waved his arms dramatically as he ranted, “I go out, I work my butt off to make a living. All I want is to come home to a nice clean house with a nice fat steak on the table, but instead I get this—this—I don’t even know what you call this!” He shoved the casserole dish aside.

Beatrice Smith scurried around timidly, placing more food on the table and letting the tirade sweep over her as usual. She’d long since realized that Edgar had married her to get free housekeeping services rather than for love. He noticed the food, not her appearance. She’d allowed herself to go slovenly, letting her appearance reflect her value in her husband’s eyes.

She glanced out the window, striving for a moment’s harmony with nature since there was none inside her home. The sky above was a brilliant field of stars. It filled her soul and gave her the patience to turn back to the table. She missed seeing one of the stars get bigger.

Edgar was still finding fault with the casserole. “I’ll tell you what it looks like, it looks like poison.” But when she reached for the serving dish, he squalled, “Don’t you take that away. I’m eating that, damn it! It is poison, isn’t it?!”

She longed to turn back to the window and flee into the starry sky. But Edgar’s attention was firmly fixed on her now, so she sat perfectly still and lowered her eyes to her plate.

So she didn’t see the star move toward them. It went from a pinpoint to the size of a dime, to a nickel, to a quarter, then into fruit metaphors—from a plum it quickly reached grapefruit size.

Oblivious to the world outside, the farmer continued his rant. “I swear to God, I would not be surprised if it was, the way you skulk around here like a dog been hit too much—or ain’t been hit enough, I can’t make up my mind.”

The object in the sky grew way past the size of a watermelon. It was huge, and it started to glow red hot as it entered the earth’s atmosphere, headed straight toward Edgar and Beatrice’s farm. The blazing fireball barrelled through the sky, snapping off a couple of tall trees—

“You’re useless, Beatrice!” her husband growled. “The only thing that pulls its weight around here is my goddamn truck!”

The cosmic visitor chose that exact moment to slam right through the pickup truck where it was parked in the driveway. A concussive blast followed, then a geyser of smoke and flame.

“Stay here!” Edgar yelled. He leapt to his feet, grabbed his twelve-gauge shotgun from its wall mount, and threw the door open. He stopped in shock, his mouth falling agape as he took in the shattered shell that had been his truck. Mouth still open, he started across the yard, staring at the skeletal remains of his beloved vehicle.

Bernice found herself at the doorway, despite the order to stay behind. She could see a huge, smouldering hole in the truck’s battered framework. The hole went down into the ground so deep, she couldn’t see the bottom from her position on the porch.

“Figures,” she heard Edgar grunt.

He walked up to the truck and touched the door handle. It was so hot, he had to use his shirttail to open the door to get a good look down into the hole.

Beatrice called softly, “What is it, Edgar?!”

He turned back to her and snarled, “Get your big butt back in that house!”

She did as she was told. This was definitely not the time to piss off her abusive spouse.

— Edgar turned back to the smoking pit. He could see a smooth curve of metal and a few blinking lights. Embedded into the ground was a spaceship, maybe eight feet across. He raised his shotgun in defence.

An otherworldly voice came from deep within the hole, “Place projectile weapon on ground.”

Edgar staggered back a step, terrified. But then he regained himself, raised the weapon, and stepped forward, pointing it menacingly down into the hole. “You can have my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers!”

There was a pause while the unseen speaker considered the offer. Finally, it responded, in a voice and cadence remarkably similar to Edgar’s, “Your proposal is acceptable.”

Before he could react, a long, hairy pincer flashed out of the hole, grabbed Edgar by the head, and pulled him down into the cavity. From deep within the pit came a terrible ripping sound, like a bedsheet being torn in half. This was followed by disgustingly gushy sounds. A moment later, something flew out of the hole and flopped onto the ground next to the truck.

The object was Edgar. Well, sort of. His body parts still hung together—face, arms, legs, even clothes—but everything inside had been removed. The body just lay there, flat and empty, like a tuxedo on the floor after the prom.

Beatrice sat at the kitchen table, terrified, still wiping away tears from Edgar’s diatribe. The door opened and he walked back into the kitchen, seemingly fleshed out again. He left the door hanging open behind him. He still carried the shotgun.

She looked up at Edgar, anxious to know what had happened, but her husband’s face was blank. “What on earth was it?!” she whispered.

He looked at her strangely. When he spoke, his voice was different than before—more refined somehow. “Sugar.”

Her gaze flitted out the window to the smoking truck. “I’ve never seen sugar do that.”

He ignored the comment. “Give me sugar.”

Puzzled, Beatrice nevertheless went to the cabinet and grabbed a bag of sugar. She knew from past experience that there would be hell to pay if she didn’t cater to his whims, no matter how strange.

She held the bag out to him, but he made no effort to take it. “In water,” he said.

Frightened, she took a glass of water from the table and dumped some of the sugar into it.

“More.” His voice was flat … emotionless.

She poured more in and looked at him for confirmation that it was enough. He made no move to take the glass, so she kept pouring until the glass was brimming. She stirred it quickly with a knife, then gave it to him, her hand trembling.

Edgar took the sweetened water and gulped it down in a single slurp.

Beatrice stared at her impassive husband, no idea what to think. There was none of the bitter baiting she’d grown used to over the years. Then she noticed something odd about the skin on his neck. “Edgar, your skin! It’s … it’s—just hanging off your bones!”

Edgar dropped his glass and twisted about to catch his reflection in a window. He reached up—and twisted his whole face, as if adjusting a ski mask. Then he tucked the skin of his neck back into his shirt collar. He turned back to her. “That better?”

Beatrice fainted.

By the time she had regained consciousness, Edgar had pried his spaceship from the pit and pushed it off, rolling like a wheel, into the darkness.

? ? ? ? ?

The next morning, Blair Sandburg found himself holding the small MIB business card in his hand and standing in front of 504 Bloxham Drive. The building was seven stories high, grey, windowless, perfectly square, squatting on a bridge over the road like a fat guy on the john. He compared the address one more time. Yup, this was the place alright. He had absolutely no idea why he was there… other than a faint hope that he’d see the tantalizing man he’d met the night before. The image of a perfectly chiselled face with crystal blue eyes rose up before him. He sighed and walked into the building.

The entrance was a heavily barred metal door leading into a long, bizarre room. One wall was entirely dominated by the enormous blades of a tunnel vent air intake. There was an elevator at the far end of the room and an old security guard, the rent-a-cop kind, sitting on a folding metal chair halfway across the room and reading a comic book.

Blair walked across the room, his footsteps echoing.

The guard looked up as he approached. “Help you?”

Blair looked hesitantly around the huge empty space. “Maybe, I’m not sure … see, I got this card—”

“Elevator. Push the ‘call’ button.” And he went back to his comic book.

Damning his curiosity, Blair walked across the room. As he drew close to the elevator, its doors whooshed open as though he were expected.

He stepped inside and turned around. The doors closed on their own, but the elevator did not move. After waiting patiently for half a minute, he pushed the ‘call’ button and waited some more. Still the elevator remained at rest. Instead, doors on the other side of the elevator slid silently open behind him. Unaware, he nearly jumped out of his skin when somebody cleared their throat behind him. He whipped about and found himself standing in a back room every bit as mysterious and unfamiliar as the entryway had been.

Standing at the front of the room was an extremely tall black man with an old school bureaucrat air, wearing the exact same kind of suit Jay had worn the night before. Six other hot recruits sat in egg-shaped chairs, staring at Sandburg. One chair remained empty.

“You’re late,” the big man said in a rich velvety voice. “Sit down.”

Starting to really wonder what he had got himself into, Blair took the remaining chair. The elevator doors snicked shut.

The agent in charge continued addressing the recruits. “My name is Zed. You’re all here because you’re the best of the best. Marines, Navy Seals, Army Rangers … university doctorates.”

The others turned and regarded Sandburg a little smugly. Except for himself, they all wore uniforms of one kind or another. His baggy kakis, lime green bowling shirt and brown leather jacket made him stand out like a sore thumb. He gritted his teeth and gave them back a pseudo-smile of his own.

“And we’re looking for one of you,’ Zed continued. “Just one.”

No one said a word.

Zed went on with his speech. “What will follow is a series of simple tests designed to quantify motor skills, hand-eye coordination, concentration, stamina—I see we have a question.”

Blair blushed as all eyes turned on him. He pulled his hand down quickly. “Why, uh—I’m sorry, it’s just no one really asked this, but—why, exactly, are we doing this?”

Silence. Then one of the young military men eagerly raised his hand. Zed called on him.

The fellow jumped to his feet and stood at attention. “Jake Jensen, West Point, graduate with honours.” His voice was loud and formal. “We’re here because you’re looking for the best of the best of the best, sir!”

Blair tried to stifle a laugh, but couldn’t.

Zed glared at him. “What’s so funny, Dr. Sandburg?”

“I… I don’t know, sir. This guy. ‘Best of the best of the best of the best of the—’ ” Realizing nobody in the room was with him on this, he broke off. “Uh, it just struck me as—” He willed his face to remain as serious as possible. “—humorous.” As an afterthought he added, “Sir.”

An awkward pause followed while everyone stared.

“Okay,” Zed said. “Let’s get going.”

After a series of personal interviews, Blair and the other recruits found themselves herded back into the room where they had started. Each was handed a written test and told to begin.

It was a thick document—reasoning skills, general knowledge, diagrams. He looked around for a surface to write on and saw that the other candidates seemed to be really powering through the test, filling in answer after answer. But no desks had been provided for them, and they were all cramped up in their egg-shaped chairs, writing uncomfortably on their thighs or knees.

Assuming he was expected to work in the same conditions as the others, he started the test. He wrote two words on one answer, then decided to erase it. The lack of a writing surface drove him crazy; his pencil even tore through the page.

Blair ground his teeth in frustration and looked around the room again. In the middle of the tile floor was an unused table. Since no one else was using it, he decided to appropriate it for himself.

As unobtrusively as possible he unfolded himself from the cramped confines of the plastic chair and tiptoed over to the table. However, as he started to drag it back, he discovered it was much heavier than it looked. There was a loud metal screech that made the fillings in his teeth hurt. As the horrible sound filled the room, everybody looked up and kept staring the entire time it took him to get the table back to his chair.

Blair sat down feeling exceedingly uncomfortable at being the target of every eye in the room. He spread out the test and started writing. “That’s better,” he said out loud.

He glanced up in time to see Zed raise an eyebrow. Then the man looked up toward a smoked glass window. Only the silhouette of a tall man could be made out through the dark glass, but somehow Blair knew that it was Jay. He had a vague feeling that something was wrong, but he couldn’t pinpoint the problem.

Blair sighed and went back to work. He knew he’d ace this part of the program. After all, he’d been taking tests and passing them with almost perfect marks all his life.

He was feeling a lot less confident by the time the group was led into a shooting gallery. Oh, he’d learned to shoot a gun while observing the police for his dissertation, but he’d hated the feel of a weapon in his hands. Still he’d persisted until his scores were as good as those of the average Cascade PD cop. The soldiers around him, however, perked up at the sight of seven guns lying on the table in the middle of the otherwise empty, triangular room. Obviously they were all experts and looked forward to demonstrating their skill.

They crowded around the table and waited. There was an odd moment where everyone sort of looked around: at each other, at the blank walls….

Blair blurted out, “Anyone, uh … any of you guys know what we’re doing here?”

The Marine answered for the group: “Looking for the best of the best of the best.”

Blair couldn’t help but smile. “Well, yeah, I know, but—”

Suddenly—the two far walls pulled apart. The whole room pulsated, and the air was abruptly filled with a bewildering swirl of stroboscopic images, both human and alien. Everywhere was colour, light and movement—a holographic mass of strange shapes and characters moving simultaneously.

Everyone lunged for the weapons, snapping them up and taking aim. Six shots were fired at once. And then, a second later, Blair pulled his trigger.

The holographic scene froze as all the soldiers stared at the civilian in their midst. He was the last to lay his gun back down on the table. The silence was awkward.

The door opened and light poured into the room. Zed stalked in, an unlit cigar clamped between tightly clenched teeth. He headed straight for Sandburg.

Blair’s eyes flitted around the room seeking assurance. Even the highly competitive cadets showed signs of sympathy in the face of the big man’s anger. “What the hell happened?” Zed barked.

Blair scuffed a sneaker across the tile before answering sheepishly: “Hesitated, sir.”

Zed looked into the gallery. Most obvious in the frozen tableau of creatures was a lunging, snarling beast, which had three bullet holes in its chest. Next to it was a massively deformed humanoid creature with a large hook for a head, which also had three bullet holes in it. In the back corner of the gallery, there was a single bullet hole in a pretty eight-year-old girl.

“May I ask why you felt little Tiffany deserved to die?”

Ill at ease, Blair still answered truthfully. “She was the only one who actually seemed dangerous. At the time.”

“And how did you come to that conclusion?”

“Errrr … I tried to look at the situation as if I were doing an anthropological observation. Hook-head guy. You explain to me how he can think with a hook for a head? Answer; it’s not his head. His head is that ugly bean-bag thing over there.” He gestured at the other gun-shot victim. “And if you look at the snarling beast-guy, he’s not snarling, he’s sneezing—he’s got tissues in his hand. No threat there.” Lastly he indicated the child. “And anyhow, the girl’s books were way too advanced for an eight-year-old’s. And besides, from where I’m looking, she was the only one who appeared to have a motive.” With each explanation Blair had regained more nerve. He turned from defensive to aggressive. “And I don’t appreciate your jumping down my throat about it.”

Zed’s jaw popped open and the cigar slid unnoticed to the floor. The other recruits gave Sandburg sideways glances and edged away.

Zed sighed.

Blair decided to soften his stance a bit. “Or, uh—do I owe her an apology?”

Zed glared but did not answer. He pivoted and stomped out of the room. The door slammed behind him.

When Zed strode scowling into the observation room overlooking the shooting gallery, Jim turned away from the one-way window. Hoping Zed would not realize how much was riding on the decision, he quirked an eyebrow.

“He’s got a real problem with authority,” Zed responded.

“So do I.”

“No kidding,” Jim heard Zed mutter under his breath. They’d worked together for a long time and knew each other far better than colleagues should.

“The guy ran down a cephlapoid, Zed. On foot. Real tenacity. That we can use.”

He carefully made no mention of the grounding effect he felt in the kid’s presence. His wacko senses seemed to stabilize when Sandburg was around. Of course, Simon—errr, Zed—knew nothing about the problems with his senses, and he wasn’t about to tell the MIB director now, no matter how good friends they were … especially after having zoned out earlier that morning while observing the testing.

Zed paused, then seemed to accept Jim’s words at face value. “I hope you know what you’re doing.”

Jim relaxed at last.

He paused to peer through the glass one more time as Zed’s footsteps receded behind him. The kid stood apart from the rest of the group, looking a bit lonely. He watched all the heads pop up as the door reopened and Zed stepped back into the gallery. Then he too turned and headed out into the corridor, although he pricked his ears to hear what was being said even if he was no longer watching.

“Congratulations, you’re everything we’ve come to expect from years of government training. Now, if you’ll just follow me, we have one more test to administer: an eye exam.”

Jim was waiting just outside as the stoic director led the recruits out of the shooting gallery and into a long hallway. Zed motioned them off to the left.

Sandburg was the last one out of the room, but he stopped as soon as he saw Jay standing in the hall. He’d shown up for the appointment more on the chance of seeing the handsome agent again than because of any interest in being recruited for whatever. Now they stood face-to-face, and all he could think to say was, “You!” and beamed happily allowing a big, stupid smile to plaster his face.

A moment later he noticed he’d been left behind the group. He started to follow, but a large hand landed on his shoulder and brought him to a halt. Jay motioned with his head that they were to go in the opposite direction.

“Hey, what’s goin’ on?”

Before he answered, Jay looked at him through lowered lashes as though gauging what his reaction would be. When the agent started to speak, his voice was totally deadpan. “Back in the mid-fifties, the government started a little under-funded agency with the simple and laughable purpose of making contact with beings from other planets.”

Blair nearly stumbled at the words. He wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, but this wasn’t it. Except, somehow, the mention of aliens didn’t feel as startling to him as it might have been the week before.

He looked back uneasily over his shoulder and saw the other six recruits herded into a corner. Zed, addressing them, had pulled a silver tube from his pocket. “Now, if you’ll look directly at the end of this device.” The director held the mechanism up in front of them, and the military types stared obediently at it as Zed slipped on a pair of black sunglasses.

Sandburg too stared, fascinated, but Jay’s hand reached back and yanked him away. He caught a flash of brilliant light through his peripheral vision.

“Wha…?”

Jay failed to respond. Instead, as they turned the corner into an impossibly long corridor, he handed Blair a file folder stuffed thick with eight-by-ten photographs.

The picture on top was a shot of eight or nine men in plain black suits standing around a fifties-style office with metal desks and fluorescent lights. Everyone looked very young and very earnest.

Jay continued his narrative, “Everybody thought the agency was a joke. Except the aliens. They made contact on March 2nd, 1961, outside Seattle.” He reached over and pulled another photograph from the folder. It was a grainy black and white image of two ships hovering in the night sky—classic flying saucer shapes.

“There were nine of us that night. Seven agents. An amateur astronomer. And one poor kid who got lost on the wrong back road.” Yet another photograph was pulled out, this one showing a young Pee, in a shirt and tie, holding a bouquet of flowers, staring at the open door of the landed flying saucer. Alien shapes were visible within.

“He brought the aliens flowers?”

Jay steered Sandburg to the right, down another corridor, just as long as the first. The manoeuvre kept Blair from noticing the failure to answer about the flowers.

“They were intergalactic refugees with a simple request: ‘Let us use the earth as an apolitical zone for people without a planet.’ Ever see Casablanca? Same thing, no Nazis. We agreed. So the agency masked all evidence of their landing.”

Another picture was brought out, this one of the 1964 World’s Fair grounds, still under construction. Giant models of rockets marked the Fair’s theme of space travel; most prominent in the construction were two tall towers, with the flying saucers now mounted at the top of each.

“The 1964 World’s Fair was a cover-up?” Blair blurted.

“Why else would they hold it in Cascade instead of Seattle?”

They turned down still another long hallway.

Jay continued his lecture as they walked. “More nonhumans arrive every year. They live among us, in secret.”

“I see.” Actually, he didn’t see at all. He didn’t like the thought that his hunky companion might be a nut case. “Not to change the subject, but when was your last cat-scan?”

Without skipping a beat, Jay replied, “Every six months; it’s company policy.”

The response was more than enough for Blair. However attracted he might be to Mr. Hunkalicious, this alien conspiracy talk was way too off the wall for him. He was an anthropologist—a scientist, for Pete’s sake! The pictures were good fakes, but he’d seen nothing acceptably concrete to change his basic belief that creatures from outer space were pure fantasy. “Well, thanks for the very amusing morning, but I’m hopin’ you’ll show me where I came in? ‘Cause this is where I go out.”

They’d come to a halt next to an unmarked door. Jay did not seem at all phased by his disbelief. He simply pushed the door open and stepped inside saying, “Yeah, sure. Hang on, I wanna grab a coffee while we’re right here.”

As Jay walked into the kitchenette, Blair felt his jaw drop to the floor and his eyes pop right out of his head. The small room was occupied by three worm-like aliens, who stood around a water cooler. Tall, impossibly thin, most certainly not from Earth much less Cascade, the aliens were holding an animated conversation in a language that seems like a combination of Esperanto and microphone feedback.

Jay appeared to accept their presence as perfectly normal. “Don’t tell me we’ve only got that powdered shit for cream again?” he groused, looking into the refrigerator.

One of the Worm Aliens answered him in their native tongue and pointed to the counter.

“Oh.”

Jay found the cream sitting out where the alien had indicated, dumped some in his coffee, and came back outside, closing the door behind him. He reached out and gently pushed Sandburg’s jaw up, closing his mouth. “For future reference, this is a better look for you.”

Ever afterwards, Blair could never quite recall how he and Jay had left the MIB building and ended up on a park bench at Butler Point. His whole universe had been tossed upside down at the encounter with the worm beings, and he had pretty much gone comatose. There were vague memories of a warm arm around his shoulders and a soothing voice that calmed his fears without his having to listen to the words that went with it. Otherwise everything was a total blur.

He finally came to himself only when a seagull lit on his thigh. Apparently, given his current zombie state, the bird had thought he was a statue.

Jay was sitting beside him, twisting an almost empty styrofoam cup between well manicured fingers, his attention focused on some distant point across the bay. The agent was still talking. Apparently, he’d been carrying on a one-sided conversation the whole time.

“Any given time, around fifteen hundred landed aliens are on the planet, the majority right here in Cascade. Most aliens are decent enough, just trying to make a living.”

“Cab drivers?”

Jay jumped at the interruption. He gave Blair a warm smile as though to say “Glad you’re back” and replied quietly, “Not as many as you’d think. Humans, for the most part, don’t have a clue. Don’t want one, either. They’re happy. They think they’ve got a pretty good bead on things.”

“Why the big secret? People are smart, they can handle it.”

The big man simply stared at him until his eyes dropped. How could he have possibly asked such a dumb question considering his own shut-down just now.

“A person is smart,” Jay said thoughtfully. “People are dumb. Everything they’ve ever ‘known’ has been proven to be wrong. A thousand years ago everybody knew as a fact, that the earth was the centre of the universe. Five hundred years ago, they knew it was flat. Fifteen minutes ago, you knew we humans were alone on it. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”

Blair blushed. That didn’t stop him from looking up shyly through his eyelashes and asking, “So what’s the catch?”

“What you’ll gain in perspective, you’ll lose in ways you’re too young to comprehend. You give up everything. Sever every human contact. No one will know you exist. Ever.”

“Nobody?”

Jay gave a sad shake of his head.

Blair thought of his will’o’the wisp mother Naomi. She wasn’t a huge part of his world. Indeed, since he’d settled down to go to school in Cascade, she’d simply flitted in an out of his life until he’d ended up thinking of her more as an acquaintance than a parent. Still, she was his mother…

His thoughts were interrupted as Jay leaned over and fingered the collar of his lime green bowling shirt. “You’re not even allowed a favourite shirt.” A look of great sadness came over the classic features. “There. That’s the speech I never heard. That’s the choice I never got.”

Startled, Blair barked out, “Hold up. You track me down, put me through those stupid tests, now you’re trying to talk me out of it. I don’t get it.”

Jay refused to meet his eyes. “You’ve got ‘til sun-up.”

“Is it worth it?”

“You find out, you let me know.”

Jay started to rise and walk away, but some impulse caused Blair to reach out and stop him. He caught Jay by the hand and felt sparks as their bare skin touched.

Carefully he took the now empty cup and set it down on the ground. Then he turned sideways on the bench and tugged Jay around too until they were face-to-face. He laced his fingers through Jay’s and pulled them closer together.

No words came. He didn’t know what to say—and even if he had, the moment was too powerful to be expressed in man-made language. Instead he let his eyes and lips speak for him.

— Hours later—long after the sun had gone down—Blair was still sitting on the park bench, although Jay was long gone.

Blair had wanted to make love then and there after the soul-deep kiss had ended. He’d never before felt such a deep connection with anyone. It was frightening because the bond had grown so intense in such a short amount of time. After all, they’d only met the day before.

A light breeze off the water blew strands of hair across his face. He brushed them back, evoking the memory of Jim’s warm hand gently tucking a curl behind his ear after their embrace. The loving gesture had done much to moderate the pain when Jay had refused his offer, saying only that he wanted Blair to make his decision freely without any undue influence caused by physical attraction.

So he sat there and thought things through thoroughly, counted the pro’s and con’s, weighed the course he’d planned for his life against the opportunity being offered. Slowly the young man raised his eyes to the vastness of the night sky overhead. Here in the park, away from most of the city’s lights, the star field was magnificent. He stretched his arms over his head and reached for the moon. He made his decision.

? ? ? ? ?

The Orkin Man was out and about shortly after dawn the next morning. He’d taken the adage “The early bird catches the worm” to heart, although he’d changed the words in his own mind to “The early exterminator catches the bug.”

The owner hadn’t shown up at the garage yet, but that didn’t deter the Cascade’s finest pest-control master. No one out here in the boonies ever locked their doors. He simply walked over, gave a heave to the big double doors, and the garage opened wide.

The morning light spilled on an abundance of spiders, crawling everywhere—big ones, small ones; hundreds of them had moved in and taken over the dusty interior. He sighed and set down his tank of toxic gas. “Well, well, well. Movin’ right in, are we? Think we own the place?”

He unfurled a hose from the side of the tank. “Got a little eviction notice for you, boys.”

As he’d done hundreds of times before, he raised a mask to his face and unscrewed the handle on the top of the tank. Lethal gas hissed from the end of the hose.

“Just what exactly do you think you’re doing?” The rough voice caused him to jump half a foot into the air.

The exterminator whipped around to discover a dishevelled figure in worn overalls standing in the doorway to the garage. The man was staring at him disdainfully.

Feeling vaguely antagonized, he replied, “Takin’ care of your pest problem.”

“ ‘Pest’ problem? ‘Pest’?” The ramshackle fellow stepped into the room.

“Yeah. You got a hell of an infestation.”

The man—Edgar Smith, or rather the alien wearing Smith’s husk—advanced on him, slowly. “You know, I have noticed an infestation here. Everywhere I look, in fact. Nothing but undeveloped, unevolved, barely conscious pond scum,” he ranted. “So convinced of their own superiority as they scurry about their short, pointless lives.”

Nonplussed, the Orkin Man hesitated for a moment before replying, “Well—yeah. Don’t you want to get rid of ‘em?”

“In the worst way.”

When Edgar made his move, it was lightning fast. He lashed out quickly, jerking the mask off the Orkin Man’s face with one hand while shoving the gas hose down his throat with the other.

The gas went to work almost immediately, paralysing the exterminator’s whole body. As he slid silently to the ground, his keys dropped out of his pocket. All he could do was watch and choke as Edgar bent over to pick them up.

Edgar ignored his twitching victim. He pulled a six-by-ten sheet of plywood from the side of the run-down garage and hauled it over to the Orkin van, where he propped one end up in the open door to make a ramp.

As he expired, the Orkin man’s last sight was of Edgar slowing rolling his spaceship up the ramp and into the back of the truck.

? ? ? ? ?

The new day found Blair Joseph Sandburg, Doctor of Anthropology, standing in the middle of the MIB building tunnel vent room, the same one he’d first come into the day before. He stood quietly, higher reasoning functions shut down, while the old security guard announced his presence.

The elevator doors slid open soundlessly and Jay stood waiting for him.

Blair gave himself a little shake. This was it. No going back now. He started in on the speech he’d been rehearsing to himself the whole way there. “One thing you gotta know right now…”

He walked briskly forward and got in the elevator with Jay, immediately feeling the electricity between them. He stopped speaking until the doors had whooshed shut giving them privacy.

Watching Blair with a carefully expressionless mask, Jay turned a key in a certain floor number, and the descent began.

“All right,” Blair continued. “I’m in because there’s some next-level shit going on around here, and I’m with that. My mom always did say that I have too big a bump of responsibility. Plus…” He grinned like a little kid opening a huge birthday present. “…meeting and working with unknown alien races is an anthropologist’s dream come true.”

He turned serious. “Yeah, I’m attracted to you somethin’ fierce, but that’s just a bonus. I may look young, but I’m not. I know how to keep relationships and business separate.”

Jay’s face lit up with a luminescent smile, but Blair didn’t give him the opportunity to speak. “But before you beam me up, there are a couple of things we need to get straight. You chose me ‘cause you recognized the skills. So as of now you can cease with all of that calling me ‘son’ or ‘kid’ or ‘sport’. Cool?”

“Cool, Chief. Now about those skills of yours—” The elevator doors slid open on Men in Black Headquarters. “—as of this moment, they don’t mean much.”

It was unlike anything Blair had ever seen—and he’d seen a lot during his travels with his vagabond mom and later on his own. The place was huge, multileveled, of sixties design, polished steel and glass. The workplaces scattered about the vast space were sleek and uncluttered, manned by both humans and aliens. And of course, he’d never before seen an office clerk like the upside-down creature walking on the ceiling, shuffling papers.

Blair pulled his slack jaw shut. His mouth had been dropping open far too often lately.

They stepped off the elevator and onto a platform that looked out over the whole place. As Jay led him down into the complex, he found his head spinning around like an owl’s as he tried to take everything in at once.

First, they passed a sort of passport control centre, where a human bureaucrat at a desk was checking the documents of a line of aliens who’d just arrived. There were a dozen bizarre life forms in that line, chatting in half a dozen different alien tongues.

Sandburg slowed for a better look, listening to the passport control officer as he addressed an Arquillian, a large, cadaverous humanoid visitor.

“Purpose of trip?”

“Diplomatic mission.”

“Duration of stay?”

“Lunch.”

“Carrying any fruits or vegetables?”

Fascinated, Blair would have stopped to watch, but Jay grabbed him by the arm and hurried him along. “Let’s go. He’s a little… grouchy.” With a hand to the small of Blair’s back, Jay guided him out into the central hall. “A couple of hours wait after a 17-light-year flight would get on anybody’s nerves.”

Eyes flickering right and left, nostrils flared to catch alien scents, ears buzzing with unfamiliar sounds, Blair asked, “What branch of the government do we report to?”

“None. They started asking too many questions.”

“So who pays for all this?”

“Oh, we hold a few patents on gadgets we confiscated from our out-of-state visitors. Velcro. Microwave Ovens. Liposuction.”

They stopped at a storage cage. Jay turned a key in the lock of a fenced-in area and threw the door open. Inside, there were piles of sophisticated-looking devices stacked on shelves and tabletops. He stepped in and retrieved a tiny gadget. “Here. A new recording device to replace CDs. So now I gotta buy Santana again?”

He picked up another device. It was a cylindrical metal tube with a small wire clip that looked like a lapel microphone. “This is amusing. Universal translator.” He paused. “We’re not supposed to have it.” He forestalled the question forming on Blair’s lips. “I’ll tell you why. Human thought is so primitive it’s considered an infectious disease. Makes you proud, doesn’t it?”

Blair picked up a small yellow ball from one of the shelves. “What’s this?”

Jay’s face twisted with alarm. “Don’t touch that!”

The ball seemed to spring out of the young man’s hands of its own accord. It rocketed out into the main complex—hit the ceiling and ricocheted around the room, faster than the eye could follow. Humans and aliens both went flying in every direction, ducking, dodging, and jumping out of its way.

Now that it was too late to prevent, a calm expression came over Jay’s face. A little wearily, he slipped an odd-looking metal glove over his right hand. He raised the metallic mitt and the yellow ball zinged into it.

He calmly placed the ball back on the shelf and removed the glove. “Caused the ‘77 New York blackout. Practical joke by the Great Attractor. He thought it was funny as hell.”

Blair found himself speechless.

As they left the storage room, he managed to blurt out a timid “Sorry!”

On the main floor, they walked briskly across the room, reaching a giant screen on the far wall. “Observation, the heart of our little endeavour,” Jay proclaimed.

The screen displayed a map of the world on which thousands of tiny lights blinked in all parts of the globe, log lines of data flashing next to them. “This map shows the location of every registered alien on earth at any given time. Some of them we keep under constant surveillance.”

He hit a button on the console and the map was replaced by hundreds of boxes, each with smaller video images. He continued, “Everyone on these screens is an alien. In public—normal. In private—you’ll get the idea.”

On the screens were live images of aliens. Aliens who looked alien were in spots where they couldn’t be seen. Aliens who looked human were functioning right out in public—including Sam Donaldson, Michael Jackson and Tony Robbins.

Blair could have stared at the screens for hours, but Jay continued on with his orientation tour. “Meet the twins.” He gestured to two small, bony creatures with eight arms each and a single eye growing out of a central stalk in their heads. They turned around and waved two or three arms each in greeting.

“I gotta be honest about something,” Blair mused.

“It makes no sense?”

“It makes perfect sense. When I was a third grader in Philadelphia, they told me I was crazy ‘cause I swore that our teacher was from, like, Venus or something.”

Jay surprised him by supplying her name: “Mrs. Edelson.”

Oops, there went his jaw dropping again! He shut his mouth with a snap as one of the twins booted her onto the screen: Mean face, cat glasses. Bony fingers. Extremely well-hidden tail.

“Jupiter, actually,” the alien supplied. “Well, one of the moons.”

With their remaining arms, the twins punched button after button on the enormous console. Zed, who’d been standing up close to the screen the whole time, walked over to Sandburg, giving him a thorough once-over with his eyes. “What’s your jacket size, Sandburg?”

“Uh—forty regular.”

“Then let’s put it on.”

“Put what on?”

“The last suit you’ll ever wear,” Zed replied with a smirk.

Like the rest of the place, the MIB locker room was all white—white walls, white floor, white ceiling, white lockers. As Blair took in the sterile feel to the place, Zed took up where he’d left off in the observation room. “From now on, you’ll dress only in attire specially sanctioned by MIB Special Services.”

He guided Sandburg over to a white locker and indicated that it was his.

Blair reached out and opened the painted metal door to reveal a black suit on a hanger in the middle. Above it, on the shelf, were a black hat and a pair of black sunglasses. On the bottom sat a pair of patent leather shoes shiny and black.

He looked to Jay for reassurance. Instead he found his new colleague at a computer terminal, across whose screen flashed Sandburg’s birth certificate, driver’s license, social security card, library card, everything.

Zed hadn’t stopped talking. “You’ll conform to the identity we give you, eat where we tell you, live where we tell you, get approval for any expenditure over a hundred dollars.”

Completely befuddled, Blair allowed himself to be led into a cramped white booth. He placed both his hands on a ten-fingered keypad as directed, pressing down hard. The pad glowed red, a searing sound came from his hands, and he grimaced as more lasers instantly and (not at all) painlessly changed his fingerprints.

Zed explained, “You will have no identifying marks of any kind. You will not stand out in any way.”

He steered the long-haired anthropologist over to a barber’s chair. Blair took one look at the shears and backed away shaking his head violently. “Hey, no way I’m cuttin’ my hair!”

He heard a fond chuckle from across the room. “With that mane, you definitely don’t blend into the background, Simba.”

He shot Jay a scorching glare, then reddened as he remembered Jay’s hands in his hair the night before, stoking, cuddling, winding silken strands around his fingers while they kissed. After, Jay had buried his nose in Blair’s curls and breathed in his scent as though smelling a bouquet of flowers.

He closed his eyes and remembered the sensuality of the moment. He wanted to relive the experience again, but that wouldn’t happen if he allowed his long locks to be chopped off. Besides, it had taken a couple of years to grow the length he wanted. No way was anyone getting close to him with scissors!

“I—am—not—cutting—my—hair.” He spat the words out one at a time, enunciating carefully so there was no possibility of misunderstanding.

“But… but…” Zed stuttered. Apparently he’d never met that level of defiance from any other recruit. The stupefaction on the authoritative face told the story all too well.

Blair reached into his pocket and pulled out a black elasticized tie. He slicked his hair away from his face and made a ponytail at the back of his neck. “There. Is that better?” he asked.

“It’ll have to do,” Zed muttered in a resigned tone of voice.

Jay smiled and winked, then went back to working on the computer. Blair drifted over to his side and saw that the agent was deleting his identify cards one by one.

Finally all that was left on the computer screen was Sandburg’ full name:

BLAIR JOSEPH SANDBURG

Jay punched a couple keys, and the cursor began to sweep from right to left, starting to eliminate the rightmost letters of the name.

Zed had recovered himself now. He dove back into the safety of his memorized speech. “Your entire image is carefully crafted to leave no lasting memory whatsoever with anyone you encounter.”

He reached into the locker, removed the pants and white shirt, and handed them to his new recruit.

Blair shimmied out of his jeans and the worn blue sweatshirt he’d put on at random that morning. He pulled on the black pants and found the fit to be perfect. The shirt was exactly the right size too. As he buttoned it up, he watched Jay’s fingers fly over the computer keyboard.

More letters were eliminated from his name. It read,

BLAIR JOSEPH SA…

Then:

BLAIR JOSEP…

Zed passed Blair the black shoes. Somehow he was unsurprised to find that they were a perfect eight and a half.

“You’re a rumour, recognizable only as déjà vu and dismissed just as quickly. You don’t exist; you were never even born,” Zed droned on.

The coat was removed from the locker. The hat came off the shelf.

“Anonymity is your name. Silence your native tongue.”

BLAIR…

BLA…

“You are no longer part of ‘the system’. We’re above the system. Over it. Beyond it.”

Blair buckled his belt and pushed his tie up.

“We’re ‘them’. We’re ‘they’.”

On screen, all that was left was the letter ‘B’.

As Zed helped him button the coat, Blair noticed the sleeve. Monogrammed on the cuff was, simply, the letter ‘B’.

“We are the Men in Black.”

Looking slick and handsome in his extremely sharp suit, Dr. Blair Joseph Sandburg—or, rather, Bee—followed Zed through the doorway from the locker room. He reached into his pocket, took out the sunglasses, and looked over his shoulder at his new partner.

“The difference between you and me?” He slipped on the sunglasses. “I make this look good.” He walked ahead wiggling his tight butt provocatively in the well cut black pants.

? ? ? ? ?

At that exact moment, the Orkin van topped a hill, and Edgar got his first view of Cascade spread out in all its splendour across the valley floor below. Edgar stepped on the gas and drove a little faster.

? ? ? ? ?

Zed’s office was a circular, windowed room elevated above the main floor of MIB headquarters. He’d led Jay and Bee there as soon as Bee had been properly outfitted. As Zed settled into his big comfortable white leather executive chair, Jay and Bee took the smaller but no less tasteful seats on the other side of the desk.

Jay settled back and allowed his gaze to linger fondly on his new partner. The young man was bouncing like a kid with an unlimited gift certificate in a toy shop. The anthropologist’s head was whipping back and forth as he tried to take in everything at once—the operations room outside the open door; the fishing flies and ceramic angels scattered among the files and papers on Zed’s desk; the five video monitors dominating the wall on the far side of the room … Jay’s focus was drawn to Bee’s blunt, slightly ink-stained fingers. He saw the muscles twitch as though the kid wanted nothing more than to whip out a piece of paper and write down notes on everything he was seeing.

Those wonderful, elegant hands filled Jay’s entire field of vision. He found himself looking through the translucent skin down to the veins and arteries that formed a filigree of red just below the surface. If he concentrated, he could hear the rush of blood and the hypnotic beat of Bee’s pulse.

He had no idea how long he was lost in that ebb and flow of the essence of life. It took Bee’s soft voice to draw him back to the mundane world. “Hey, man, are you okay?”

Jay blinked and drew his thoughts together. He couldn’t believe that he’d zoned right in front of his boss. Thank goodness Blair—Bee—was there to draw him out. Luckily Zed appeared not to have noticed. He was still immersed in the paperwork on his desk.

He gave the kid a grateful smile and pleaded silently with his eyes that an explanation could wait until later.

Zed chose that moment to leave off his reading. He swung his chair around to face the wall of monitors. Each screen showed another Man in Black, in different parts of the world, the city name and a clock ticking in a corner of the image.

“Okay, let’s see.” He looked down at an open folder and spoke to the monitor on the far right. “Eff, we got the deposed sub-prefect of Sinalee touching down in the forest outside Vancouver tonight. I’m pulling you down from Anchorage to do a meet-and-greet.”

The blond-haired agent, obviously Eff, nodded. “Humanoid?” he asked.

“You wish. Bring a sponge.”

Zed turned his attention back to his memos. “What else—everybody, we gotta keep Rolling Fish-Goat out of the sewer system, he’s scaring the rats. And Bobo the Squat wants to reveal himself on Unsolved Mysteries. Eff, make sure he doesn’t.”

The blond nodded again. His bland expression never changed.

Zed flipped the page. Jay could see the red ink from across the room.

“Red-letter from last night—we had an un-authorized landing somewhere in upstate Washington farm country. Keep your ears open for this one, Jay; we’re not hosting a galactic kegger down here.”

Next to him, his computer beeped importantly. The director turned his attention to it.

“Well, well, well—we got a skimmer,” he pronounced.

At Bee’s puzzled look, Jay leaned over and whispered, “Landed alien out of zone.”

Then in a louder voice he asked Zed, “Who is it?”

“Redgick. He’s not cleared to leave Cascade, but he’s way out of town right now, stuck in traffic on the Interstate. Why don’t you take Bee? This is a good one for him to warm up on.”

Jay gave a mock salute, caught Bee by the sleeve and towed him out of the room before he could ask any of the questions that were obviously bubbling on his lips. He set a smart pace so that Bee, with his shorter legs, had to push to keep up with him.

The curb was clear when he got there, although he knew from experience that Zed would have called the garage to have his car sent to the front. The wait gave Bee the time to pose the questions he’d been itching to ask.

“So, what’s up with Zed?” His voice switched to a fair imitation of their leader’s. “ ‘Go get ‘em, tiger. We’re not hosting an intergalactic kegger...’.”

“Zed was saving the world before you were born, Chief. Show some respect.”

At that moment an MIB mechanic pulled up in Jay’s black LTD and hopped out, leaving the door open.

Bee sized up the car. “We got the use of unlimited technology from the entire universe and we cruise around in this?”

Jay glared at Bee. He was starting to get annoyed.

He gave the kid the cold shoulder, ignoring him entirely as he climbed into the driver’s seat. Bee quickly skittered around the car and got in on the passenger side.

Jay turned the key, and the engine hummed quietly. “Seat belt,” he said.

“You know, you’ve gotta learn how to talk to people. You could be a little kinder and gentler.”

Jay gritted his teeth. Then he spat out, “Buckle up, please.”

“Now did that hurt?”

He let Bee know by the sour expression on his face that it had hurt.

Without waiting any longer, Jay shifted the car into reverse. The awesome power of the car kicked in and Bee sailed forward, thwacking into the dash. Jay shifted into forward and tapped the gas, slamming Bee back into his seat.

“Makin’ fun of Sweetheart...” he grumbled.

As Blair struggled to get his seat belt on, a lighted panel rotated into place between the two front seats. Bee’s hand accidentally landed on a flashing red button in the panel.

“Bee. The button?”

“Yeah?”

“Never push the button, Bee.”

The kid jerked his hand away.

It would have been a silent drive out to I-5 if not for Bee’s yelps and bleats as Jay broke every speed limit, switched lanes like a madman, and made the LTD defy gravity more than once. Bee was heartily glad when their prey was sighted and pulled over.

Jay stepped out and Bee followed a moment later, shaky-legged. He tried to stay in the background as Jay walked up to the window of the car they’d stopped. The driver, a guy in his mid-thirties with a wife in her mid-thirties, rolled the window down.

“License and registration, please,” Jay said, sounding for all the world like a traffic cop.

The driver handed over some documents. Jay flipped through them.

“Other license and registration, please.”

The guy dug out two other cards and handed those over. Bee peered over Jay’s shoulder.

The photographs on the “Resident Alien ID” cards were of two friendly-looking reptile types, husband and wife, smiling at the camera, their long, skinny tongues dangling in a friendly sort of way.

Jay handed the cards back. “Your resident card has you restricted to the metropolitan area only. Where do you think you’re going?”

“It’s my wife! She’s … she’s … well, look!”

Bee leaned down and glanced through the window. Mrs. Redgick sat in back, moaning in pain, holding her swollen belly. He straightened up, fast. “Oh God. How soon?”

She screamed in pain. ‘Real soon’ was the obvious answer.

For the first time since Blair had met him, Jay seemed nervous. “Okay. All right. No big deal.” He sounded like he was trying to convince himself. Then his face lit up as inspiration hit. “You handle it,” he told Bee.

“Me?”

“Sure, it’s easy, you just sorta—catch.”

Mrs. Redgick screamed again. Redgick got out of the car, worried. “Are you sure this kid knows what he’s doing?”

“Yeah, hell, sure, he does this all the time,” Jay obfuscated.

Bee shot his partner a murderous look, but Jay ignored him. “C’mon, let him work, Redgick. I’ve gotta ask you something.”

Jay gave Bee a supportive slap on the back and led Redgick away, to the rear of the car.

Bee counted backwards from ten slowly. Then he counted again. He vowed his new partner was going to pay for putting him in this situation.

Tentatively he opened the rear door and leaned down into the car. He jumped back with a yelp. “Oh God! I see it, I see it, I see it!”

He looked to Jay for help. A few yards from the car, Jay pretended not to see his partner and instead turned Redgick to face him. “Croagg the Midwife’s back on 64th and 8th. You were headed out of town,” Bee heard him say.

“Well, we’re, uh—meeting someone.”

Suddenly a tentacle whipped out from between Mrs. Redgick’s legs, cracked the whip once, and wrapped around the door post, grabbing hold.

“Oh sweet God, did you see that?!” Bee squeaked.

Jay went on talking to Redgick as though nothing were happening behind him. “So? Who you meeting?”

“Well, it’s—a ship.”

“Really? I didn’t see a departure clearance for today.”

“You didn’t? Uh, well—it was an emergency.”

Bee’s attention was brought back to the mother in labour when a second tentacle whipped out of the car. However, this one wrapped around Bees’s neck and pulled tight. He gasped, choking. “Guys—guys—”

“Doin’ fine, Chief,” replied Jay without looking back. He went on questioning Redgick. “What kind of emergency? What’s the rush to get off the planet all of a sudden?”

Bee thought he was going to choke to death. As his lungs ran out of air he managed to croak, “Help?! HELP! Hello?!”

When there was no help forthcoming from Jay, he started tugging for all he was worth, but the fight was sort of going against him, as the tentacles pulled him in even harder than he tried to pull the baby out.

Despite his panic, he could still hear the conversation going on in the background. “We just don’t like the neighbourhood anymore. Some of the … uh, new arrivals …”

“What new arrivals? This have anything to do with the crasher from last night?”

In terror Bee screamed, “Can you guys do this later?!”

But in that moment, Bee finally succeeded in getting a foot up on the doorframe. With the acquired leverage, he ripped the baby free. He fell, flat on his back in the dirt, a multi-tentacled lizardlike baby resting squarely on his chest.

“Oh … oh … oh … man,” he moaned.

Jay turned and clapped Redgick on the back. “Congratulations! It’s a lizard.”

Bee looked down at the newborn cooing and nestling on his chest. He felt his eyes get misty. “Hey, you know, it is sorta—”

It vomited on him.

Back in the LTD, watching the new family disappear in the distance, Bee wiped the last of the puke off his suit while Jay started up the car.

“Anything about that seem unusual to you, Chief?”

Bee just looked at him, very Jack Benny. “Pick.”

Jay looked at him carefully before answering. When he noticed how him pissed his new partner was, he started talking to himself instead. “What kind of ‘new arrival’ would scare Redgick so bad that he’d risk a warp jump with a newborn?” He thought for a moment. Bee could practically see the gears turning in his brain.

“Bingo.” Jay’s face lit up. “Let’s check the hot sheets.”

He threw the car in gear and drove off like a maniac. “Oh, Lord, this guy thinks he’s Beau Duke. Either that—or he’s got a death wish.” He willed his stomach to stay in place.

Luckily there was a newsstand not too far away. Jay screeched to a halt in a cloud of dust and immediately hopped out of the car. Bee took several calming breaths before following him.

The walls of the stand, both inside and outside, were plastered with supermarket tabloids. Headlines screamed “POPE A FATHER!” and “TOP DOCTORS BAFFLED—BABY BORN PREG-NANT!” and “MAN EATS OWN HOUSE!” (the subhead on that one was “And That’s Just the Appetizer, Says Neighbour.”)

Jay scooped up one of each and started scanning the headlines.

Bee peeked over his shoulder. He was too embarrassed to actually pick up any of the rags himself. “These are the ‘hot sheets’?” He made no effort to mask his incredulity.

Jay pulled a copy of the National Enquirer from the stack and gave the guy a buck. “Best damn investigative reporting on the planet. But hey, go ahead, read the Cascade Herald if you want. They get lucky sometimes.”

“You’re actually looking for tips in a supermarket tabloid?”

“Not looking for. Found.” He smacked the paper into Bee’s hand, the pages turned open to a headline in typeface so large one would think it reserved for the Second Coming: Farm wife says “ALIEN STOLE MY HUSBAND’S SKIN!”

? ? ? ? ?

A flap of skin, now getting gray and crusty with age, hung off Edgar’s neck as he sat in the front of his Orkin van. He sucked as hard as he possibly could on a straw stuck into a Jolt Cola (“Double the Sugar! Triple the Caffeine!”), one of a six-pack that sat on the dashboard.

He was watching one of those upscale jewellery stores that lined 5th Street. He came to attention when a short, older man come out of Rosenberg’s Jewellery Shoppe. Edgar dropped the soda and stared.

The elderly man (presumably Rosenberg) carried a cat and an ornate rosewood jewellery box. Carefully, he set the box down and lovingly placed the cat on top of it while he locked all five locks on the door to his distinctive shop. That finished, he picked up the cat, then the box, then waddled off down the street, one under each arm.

Edgar dropped the truck into gear and followed him, slowly, trailing along behind.

? ? ? ? ?

The LTD pulled to a stop at the end of the driveway leading to the Smiths’ farmhouse, where the alien ship had landed. The wrecked pickup truck was still there.

Jay and Bee got out, very undercover cop. Bee immediately started up the driveway.

“Not so fast. Walk up slow,” Jay admonished.

“Why?”

“Part of the routine. Makes it look like we’re sizing up the situation. Gives her time to get the wrong impression.”

So Bee pretended not to see Beatrice when she appeared in the door to the house, curious.

Jay smiled his pleasure at how quickly his young partner adapted. He added, “Puts some fear into her. Makes things go smoother.”

Beatrice called to them, “Can I help you gentlemen?”

She looked much better than the night the alien took her husband—more nicely dressed, a touch of makeup, a smile on her face.

Jay pulled a black card from his wallet and extended it to her as she drew close. As she reached for it, the card reformed into an FBI badge. “How do you do, ma’am, I’m Special Agent Muler, this is Agent Kelly, FBI. Have a few questions about your visitor.”

Beatrice’s eyes narrowed and the smile went away. “Are you here to make fun of me too?”

“No, ma’am. We at the FBI don’t have a sense of humour that we’re aware of,” he replied, totally deadpan. “Mind if we come in?”

At first it looked like she was going to say no, but then she moved back and made a gesture for them to enter. “Sure. Lemonade?”

Within a short order of time, they found themselves in Beatrice’s rather drab living room. Jay picked out the least uncomfortable-looking chair in the room and sat down carefully, balancing a cold, sweating glass of lemonade on his knee since there was no side table available. He took a sip and winced. It tasted as if she’d added only a few grains of sugar per lemon, heavy on the lemons.

Bee was a nervous bundle of energy, moving through the room, checking it out as Beatrice told her story. Jay wondered if the kid was ever quiet. He’d been like an Energizer Bunny on a fresh battery from the moment Jay had met him. Hmmm… Wonder what an Energizer Bunny is like in bed? Now that’s a thought!

He gave in to the daydream and followed Mrs. Smith’s account with only a minimal portion of his mind. Luckily she didn’t conclude her tale until after the two lovers had climaxed in his fantasy.

“And they said to me, ‘If he was murdered, how could he walk back in the house?’ And I must admit, I was a little stumped by that one. But I know Edgar. And that wasn’t him. It was more like something else that was wearing him. Like a suit. An Edgar suit.” A little giggle escaped her at the thought.

Jay wasn’t looking at Beatrice, however. Instead, he observed his gorgeous colleague with a predatory gleam in his eye.

Bee’s circumnavigation of the room had brought him over by a bookcase, where he noticed a framed photo of Edgar, kneeling in the woods, proudly about to skin a deer. “Whew. If he was this ugly before he was an alien—” he muttered softly.

“Sorry?” Beatrice responded.

With his acute hearing, Jay had heard the words clearly. He diverted the woman’s attention. “Go on.”

“Anyway, when I came to, he was gone.”

“Did he say anything?”

“Yes! He asked for water. Sugar water, if I remember right.”

“Sugar water.”

“Did you taste her lemonade?” Bee chimed in.

Jay nodded and placed his undrunk glass of lemon acid on the floor beside the chair. There was nothing more to be learned here. He stood up and put on his sunglasses, then took out another pair and handed them to Bee. The kid followed his lead, but there was a questioning look on his face as he slipped on the shades.

Jay drew his neuralyzer. Flash! Beatrice froze, staring straight ahead as if hypnotized.

Bee was standing there with his jaw hanging open again. Jay took Bee’s glasses off and handed them back to him. “Ray Bans.” He pulled his own glasses off too.

He turned back to their immobile witness. “Okay, Beatrice. There was no alien, and the flash of light you saw in the sky wasn’t a UFO. Swamp gas from a weather balloon was trapped in a thermal pocket and refracted the light from Venus—”

“Whoa!” Bee interrupted. “That thing erases her memory, and you give her a new one?”

“Standard issue neuralyzer.”

“And that’s the best you can come up with?”

Jay thought for a minute, then adjusted his story a bit: “On a more personal note, Beatrice, Edgar ran off with on old girlfriend. Go stay at your mother’s for a few days and get over it. Decide you’re better off.”

Bee butted in. “Yeah, and you’re better off ‘cause he never appreciated you anyway. In fact, you kicked him out, and now that he’s gone, you ought to buy some new clothes, maybe hire a decorator or something….”

They decided to examine the crash site while Beatrice was still frozen by the neuralyzer.

Jay crawled down into the hole himself, since Bee didn’t yet have the proper training and experience to carry out the physical investigation.

He pulled out a pocket spectral analyzer and held it over a section of scorched earth. The analyzer shifted colours: red, then yellow.

Bee called from the top of the hole, “Hey. Jay… when am I gonna get one of those memory things?”

The spectral analyzer turned blue.

He replied absentmindedly, “When you’re ready.” The analyzer was still changing colours. He whispered a prayer, “Please—not green.”

Purple. And then green.

Jay closed his eyes and sat back, leaning against the dirt. Above him, Bee leaned over, staring down. Jay looked up at him. “Do you know what alien life form leaves a green spectral trail?”

“Wait—don’t tell me—that was the question on Final Jeopardy last night.”

Jay was too upset to respond to the sarcasm. He scrambled out of the pit and raced to his car, where he immediately snatched up the radio handset and keyed the microphone. He spoke softly into the mike, keeping his voice as level as possible: “Zed, we have a bug.”

Message relayed, he turned off the radio and sighed. Bee had caught up to him by then. “I’m gonna jump way past you and just guess that this is bad. Right?”

Jay raised a weary hand and wiped away the sweat forming on his forehead. “Bugs thrive on carnage, Tiger. They consume, infest and destroy. They live off the death and decay of other species.”

The young man didn’t take it the way he expected. “So basically you have a racial problem with all insect-based life forms?” He could practically see thoughts of Nazis and the history of World War II flitting through the anthropologist’s mind.

“Listen, kid—imagine a giant cockroach five times smarter than Albert Einstein, four times stronger than an ox, nine times meaner than hell, strutting his stuff around downtown Cascade in his brand new Edgar suit. Does that sound like fun?”

Bee shook his head ‘no’, although Jay could tell that he still wondered how much of the description was accurate and how much was prejudiced exaggeration. Luckily, Sandburg … errr, Bee … decided to keep his thoughts to himself. “What do we do?”

“With a bug in town? Watch the morgues.”

? ? ? ? ?

Rosenberg, the jewellery storeowner, stepped out of a cab in Little Russia, still carrying the ornate box and his beloved cat. He headed into Leshko’s, a rather pricey establishment.

A moment later, unseen, the Orkin van pulled to a stop across the street.

Rosenberg squinted in the relative darkness of the tiny restaurant. He looked around the crowded room until he spotted a man eating alone at a table in an alcove—a tall, dignified, profoundly gaunt-looking man in his mid fifties. Slowly he walked over to the table, negotiating carefully between the close-packed tables. There he remained standing until the other man looked up.

The fellow (an Arquillian; and if Bee had been present at the meeting, he would have recognized him as the alien on a “diplomatic mission” from passport control earlier that morning) rose from his chair. He stepped forward to face Rosenberg, who set the ornate box on the table. Immediately, the cat jumped on top of it.

Rosenberg and the Arquillian stared at each other for a long moment and then embraced each other. The embrace had an odd, formal quality to it, like mafiosi coming to a sitdown. They held on, long and hard, and both seemed choked with emotion. Finally, they broke apart and took their seats.

They proceeded to speak so softly than no one around them realized they were conversing in a bizarre alien tongue.

Rosenberg wiped away tears. “Sorry I’m late. The cab drivers on this planet are terrible.”

“Your majesty, you are in grave danger,” his companion stated gravely.

“Yes, indeed, and they overcharge you every time.”

The Arquillian blinked, realizing his companion and he were speaking of two different matters. “Sir, a bug landed here. We must get you off the planet.”

“A bug?” Now there was a reaction. “He must know why I’m here.” His low voice fell even further.

“We think he does.”

The thin man noticed the ornate box on the table. “Is that what I think it is?”

Rosenberg looked down, smiled slightly and said, “No, just some diamonds for your children.” He glanced around to see if any threat were present. “Do we have time to eat?”

The Arquillian relaxed. He’d already checked the place out most carefully. “Sure,” he replied. “I took the initiative of ordering some pirogi before you arrived.”

— In the restaurant’s kitchen, the Russian cook slapped two orders of pirogi up on the stainless steel counter and announced over his shoulder “Table six is up!” He immediately turned back to the grill, so engrossed in his cooking that he did not see the grey-skinned hand that reached in, took the plates, and set them on a tray.

Even if he had looked back, he would have seen nothing unusual. The waiter carried the heavily piled tray high, so that only his right arm and aproned midsection were visible.

The man slid through the swinging doors as another waiter swept into the kitchen. Equally absorbed in his own task, neither the newcomer nor the cook noticed the dead body, literally folded in half and stuffed into the stainless steel shelves among bags of rice and cans of tomatoes.

— Semi-isolated from the rest of the room in their cosy alcove, the two aliens raised their glasses in a toast.

“To the continued reign of the Arquillian Empire,” the tall one intoned.

“To the safety of the galaxy,” Rosenburg countered formally.

They clinked glasses and drank.

A waiter with a heavy silver tray slid unobtrusively up beside their table. Still, only his arms and midsection were visible as he set the tray on a stand and lifted the plates of pirogi. He carried them to the table and set them down. Rosenberg, in the act of setting his glass down next to the plate, caught a glimpse of the waiter’s hand—just as an enormous silverfish bug slithered out of the man’s sleeve. It plopped on the table and scurried across the white linen.

The glass slipped out of Rosenberg’s hand, dumping wine all over the table.

He looked up, slowly, and saw the waiter’s face.

It was Edgar.

Another half dozen insects of all varieties tumbled out of Edgar’s sleeves and scurried across the table. Rosenberg and the Arquillian froze, paralyzed with fear. They knew what dire implications Edgar’s presence held.

Rosenberg put on a brave face and stuttered, “You can kill us both—but you will not find it.”

Edgar smiled. There was nothing at all pleasant about it. “You’re right about one thing.” With that, a long stinger whipped out from under the back of his apron and zipped under the table. First Rosenberg and then the Arquillian lurched forward their chairs, their faces contorting in pain. They both pitched forward, their faces slogging into fresh pirogi.

The stinger snapped out from under the table and whipped back under Edgar’s apron. He moved quickly, searching their pockets, but he didn’t find what he was looking for. The cat, still perched on top of the ornate box, hissed at him.

Edgar reached out and batted the cat away with one vicious swipe of his hand. The animal howled and flew across the room, landing in a woman’s soup.

The woman screamed. That drew other diners’ attention to Edgar’s table, where two obviously dead men were being robbed by a waiter. There were shouts of outrage, and a few brave fellows rose out of their seats.

In a panic, Edgar grabbed the ornate box and tried to open it, but found it locked. With the furor rising around him, he shoved the box under one arm and bolted for the door.

Rosenberg’s cat leaped back onto the table and snarled at him as he went.

It was still pandemonium at Leshko’s when Detective Henry Brown and his partner Rafe arrived on the scene. Diners stood around in small, distraught clusters, while uniformed officers handled crowd control and the crime scene crew looked for clues. There was a continual barrage of flashing lights, from news photographers trying to get pictures through the window, to the twirling lights of police cars and emergency vehicles parked just outside.

Detective Brown looked around slowly, then closed his eyes wishing heartily that someone else had been on duty when this particular call had come in.

He had to move out of the way as three attendants wheeled bodies on stretchers and covered with sheets toward a semi-circle of ambulances parked to the side.

The sudden appearance of a flying projectile made both Brown and Rafe spring to the sides. It was Rosenberg’s cat, escaping from the arms of a uniformed officer. It landed onto one of the stretchers, meowing mournfully.

The uniformed cop turned to the two detectives and asked plaintively, “What am I supposed to do with the cat?”

Rafe and Brown looked at each other helplessly. “I don’t know,” they said in unison. Cascade’s finest had never run across this situation before. The two men looked at each other and silently reached a mutual agreement. “Send it with the stiff. Let family claim it.”

The cop nodded and followed the stretcher with Rosenberg’s body into the back of one of the ambulances, allowing the cat to ride on the chest of its dead owner for the time being.

The doors of the wagon slammed shut.

? ? ? ? ?

It had been a busy day for the coroners at the Cascade morgue. Everyone was relieved when five rolled around—except Samantha Weaver, who had drawn night duty for the third night in a row. She was hunched over the second victim brought in that evening when she was interrupted by a cheery, “Where do you want contestant number three?”

She looked up and saw her favourite two ambulance attendants wheeling in another corpse. The city morgue was always a crowded, brightly-lit, tiled place with corpses parked left and right. This night there was even less space available than usual. She sighed and waved a hand. “By the wall, I guess.”

As the attendant and the uniformed cop with him pushed the cart to the indicated position, Rosenberg’s cat—still perched on his chest—meowed curiously.

Samantha blinked, not quite believing her eyes. “What’s with the cat?”

“Oh, the cat,” the officer replied off-handedly. “There’s a problem with the cat.” He shoved a clipboard in front of her. “Sign here.”

Samantha signed as directed; then curiosity got the better of her and she asked, “What’s the problem with the cat?”

His face creased in a malicious smirk. “Your problem.”

Samantha gave him a dirty look, but he just laughed and left.

Alone again, she went over to the stretcher and bent down, petting Rosenberg’s cat gently. “Are you having a bad day, baby? Cheer up.” She nodded her head at the feline’s master. “His is worse.”

She set the cat aside and wheeled the stretcher under the lights. “Okey-dokey. Shall we?”

The autopsy went as expected for the first few slices, but it soon became apparent there was something odd about the body. Fascinated, she dug deeper … and deeper, then looked up, her face a mixture of alarm and excitement. “Oh, my God!”

Her bizarre findings left Samantha so astounded that she lost track of time as she cut, sliced, poked, prodded and made notes.

It was the click of leather soles on the tiled floor of the corridor that alerted her to the fact that she was no longer alone. Whoever was outside was walking in perfect lockstep.

She walked over to her desk and laid her scalpel down beside the cat, which had finally left its master’s chest to curl up on her notebooks. Now it sat up and mewed urgently.

Following the cat’s gaze, Samantha looked up to find two men in black standing in the doorway and staring at her intently. They looked vaguely familiar, although a quick scrutiny convinced her that she had never met either one of them before.

The taller of the pair stepped forward, holding out a black card that appeared to be some kind of official ID.

“I really don’t need an interruption now,” she muttered to herself. “I don’t care who they are.”

The coroner decided to record her data before the interlopers could cause her to forget any details. She picked up the tape recorder and dictated into it: “… approximately 112 degrees at time of autopsy, indicating, quite impossibly, a post-mortem increase in body temperature. Examiner attempted to verify result rectally, only to find subject was, uh, without rectum. Which can only be described as…well… as really—”

“ ‘Weird’?” the taller, sterner looking of the two men broke in. “Dr. J. Menville, Department of Public Health,” he introduced himself. “And this is Dr. P. McCae.”

“Yeah, well whoever you are, I’m afraid I’m going to need to see some ID,” she snapped.

Dr. Menville handed over his carte noir, which turned out to be indeed imprinted with “Dr. Menville, Department of Public Health.” She handed it back.

While the man put the card away, she checked her watch. It was much later than she had expected. “You boys must not have much of a home life.”

“We watch the morgues very carefully,” the younger man responded. “You’ve got something unusual?”

“I’d say so—triple homicide.”

Wondering how they’d react to her findings, she got up and went to the Arquillian’s body, which was still lying out on a table under the lights. “The first corpse was perfectly normal, except that he was broken in half; but when I opened up the other two— Well, look.”

She threw the sheet back revealing the fully dissected Arquillian. Jay raised an eyebrow and stepped in front of Bee, who started making unexpected gagging sounds.

“There’s a skeletal structure at work here unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” she explained.

Jay stepped past her, going straight to the body. He began to examine it. “I’ll have a look at this one. Dr. McCae, why don’t you and Dr. Weaver check out the other body?”

Normally, Samantha would have found Menville’s manner too high-handed to let him get away with it. However, she was still shaken by the bizarre anomalies she’d discovered in the bodies and decided she’d probably feel happier working with the more pleasant-seeming guy. Besides, he looked more her type. “This way, Doctor,” she said to McCae.

Bee followed Samantha cross the room, to where Rosenberg’s corpse lay exposed on another gurney.

“This one’s even stranger,” she told him. “I did a full laparotomy. I started with the lesser curvature of the stomach—though, if you want, we could begin at the gastro-esophageal junction.”

“I think, uh, we should start at the same place you did.” For some reason, her companion seemed ill-at-ease.

“All right.”

Dr. McCae heard a meow and looked down. Rosenberg’s cat was rubbing up against his leg.

“Your cat?” he asked.

“Guess it is now. Came in with the bodies.”

She snapped one of her rubber gloves and then reached down, sinking her hands into the body as she moved things aside. She concentrated on what she was doing and so missed the queasy look on Bee’s expressive face.

Samantha dug in, up to her elbows. Bee winced.

She pulled one bloody glove out, to wipe a strand of hair out of her face. The action left a red smear on her cheek. He looked at her dumbstruck—so she winked at him. Then he registered so much surprise that she laughed out loud. “Okay. Dive right in. God knows he won’t mind.”

McCae was strangely reluctant, so she rolled her eyes and helped him, taking him by the hand and guiding him into the open body cavity.

As he poked around tentatively, she took the opportunity to examine the good-looking young doctor more closely. She surprised herself as well as McCae when she blurted out, “You have very pretty eyes.”

He blushed and looked really uncomfortable. “Thank-you, but is this really the time to uh… you know, come on to me?”

“Hey, just walking the dog,” she said, deciding that he looked even cuter red-faced.

She sidled up closer and placed her hand on top of his where it rested inside the body. “Feel that? Where the pyloric junction would be?”

“Oh, yes. Exactly,” he stammered.

“Now push that aside. Notice anything strange? Stomach? Liver? Lungs?”

“Nope. All fine.” The tone lacked assurance.

Startled, she stepped back and looked him directly in the eye. “Doctor, they’re all missing.”

Although he recovered quickly, she noticed with concern that the answer was less than coherent: “Well, of course they are. What I’m pointing out is that there are no pieces of them left. So they’re intact, wherever they are.” He was babbling. “That we can be sure of.”

The look of confusion was vaguely familiar. “Have we met before?” she asked. “I have the strangest feeling of déjà vu.”

“You know, I was just going to ask you the same thing.”

Samantha looked at him sideways, skeptical, but also intrigued. She whispered to him, confiding in him. “Okay. You wanna know what I really think?”

When he nodded yes, she continued “But don’t tell that guy.” She flicked a glance at Dr. Menville, who appeared to swearing under his breath. “He looks like he’s already under enough stress.”

She deliberately moved back into McCae’s personal body space and lowered her voice so that it sounded conspiratorial. “This body is not really a body, but it’s actually some sort of transport unit for something else altogether. The question is: what?”

A blank look came over his face, then an expression of intrigue. But he didn’t breathe a word.

“By the way, stop me if I’m freaking you out,” she said.

“No, no … not at all.”

Oh, my! she thought to herself. He’s adorable even when flustered.

She went back to probing at the body, watching him out the corner of her eye. When something popped and made a particularly gross gushy sound, he shuddered and looked away.

Samantha leaned over and lowered her voice, just for him. “You know what I like to do sometimes? When it’s really late?”

“No…” He sounded really freaked out. Samantha decided this was a good thing. She really liked to keep her men on their toes.

From the other side of the room, Jay cleared his throat and broke the little tête-à-tête.

“Excuse me,” Dr. McCae said. He walked across the morgue to Menville, who was still examining the Arquillian. But, she was pleased to notice, he kept looking back over his shoulder at her.

She eavesdropped unrepentantly as the tall man asked his partner, “What do you think?”

“Very interesting. Got a real Queen of the Undead thing goin’ on.”

“Of the body.”

“Great body.”

“The dead body?”

“Not a clue.”

Grinning to herself, she turned back to her examination and so missed Jay’s next comment. “All right. Keep her occupied. Try not to sound too dumb.”

Across the morgue, Samantha moved her focus from the torso to Rosenberg’s head. Something struck her as odd about the left ear. Needing confirmation to be sure she wasn’t imaging things, she called over her shoulder to Bee, “Dr. McCae.”

He was apparently too deep in conversation with his partner to hear her.

“Dr. McCae,” she called more loudly.

Still he didn’t answer.

This time she yelled, “Dr. McCae!”

Menville’s head popped up. He nudged his partner. “You’re up, Slugger.”

The young doctor turned and raced across the room to rejoin her.

“Look at this,” she demanded, pointing at the ear.

McCae leaned down. “What is that?” he asked. Apparently he too could see the strange stitching around the base of Rosenberg’s ear. He reached out, touched the ear, then he actually turned it. With a soft click, it pulled away from the head, like a latch.

The doctor and the coroner looked at each other, astonished. As one, they turned back to the body. McCae pulled again, and Rosenberg’s entire face pushed out with a mechanical hum, then hinged open, the whole face rotating out away from the rest of an artificial skull.

A tiny little green man sat inside Rosenberg’s head.

Though not quite dead, the tiny little green man appeared gravely wounded. He staggered up out of a small control room inside Rosenberg’s head. The tiny space inside the skull was crammed with gearshifts and viewing screens.”

“Far—freaking—out,” she exclaimed. She decided then and there that this was the weirdest dream she’d ever had and that it was more than time to wake up.

McCae leaned in closer. The tiny little green man (a Baltian) forced words out of his mouth. “Must … to pre … prevent …” He hesitated as though searching for the right word. “—contest? No. to prevent—”

The doctor’s natural empathy moved him to speak. “It’s all right—What are you trying to say? Struggle?”

“War?” Samantha supplied.

The Baltian nodded vigorously. That was it.

The Baltian faltered as he strained to speak. “Galaxy on … o … or …- Orion’s—” He hesitated, clearly losing the fight to remain conscious. “What is word? Be …?”

“Bed? Belt? Orion’s Belt?” McCae supplied.

The Baltian nodded again, fell over, and died.

They looked at the little dead alien, then at each other, shocked to their cores.

The young man repeated softly, “ ‘To prevent war, the galaxy is on Orion’s Belt?’ What the hell does that mean?” He turned around and called, “Hey! Jay! I mean, Dr., uh, whatever, come here!”

Samantha watched suspiciously as the tall man moved over to join them. “ ‘Doctor Whatever’? You’re not with the Department of Public Health, are you?”

McCae shook his head ‘no’ but was now paying more attention to Jay, who had just arrived close enough to see the little man. “He’s dead,” he stated the obvious.

An expression of sadness slipped over the chiselled features as Menveille … or Jay … whoever looked at the mess—the body, the little dead man. “Rosenberg. Damn. Good man.”

“You knew him?” McCae’s question startled Samantha. He was acting as though he had an idea of what was going on. This dream was getting stranger and stranger.

“One of the few I actually liked. Exiled High Prince.”

Samantha sat down abruptly as her legs failed her. “I was right—this is an alien life form, and you’re from some government agency who wants to keep it under wraps….”

The two agents, however, had ceased to pay attention to her.

McCae was recounting what had just transpired. “He said, ‘To prevent war, the galaxy is on Orion’s Belt.’ ”

“…This make total sense.” She didn’t care if she was talking to herself. She had to get things straight in her own head. “How else do you explain Cascade? The other night I’m in a cab, this guy…”

FLASH! Without even looking at her, Jay whipped out his neuralyzer and blanked her out. Then he went back to the discussion. “Rosenberg said there’s a galaxy on Orion’s Belt? That makes no sense.

“That’s what he said.” Bee frowned. He didn’t like having his reliability questioned. He turned to Samantha for confirmation. “Didn’t he? Right after he—”

Realization struck him all at once, “Oh, for Christ’s sake, you did the flashy thing already!”

Samantha chose that moment to awaken from her daze. “Uh, hi. Whoever you guys are, I’m afraid I’m going to need to see some ID if you’re going to be in the morgue, okay?”

“Sure thing, sweetheart,” Jay replied jovially. “Here you go.”

FLASH! He neuralyzed her again.

Bee slapped his hand “Stop that—”

Jay ignored him and gave the woman her new memories. “Typical day, too much caffeine, yada yada, get a life.”

“—that thing probably gives you brain cancer!” Bee complained. He wondered if this insensitive behaviour meant Jay might be jealous of the innocent little flirtation he’d been carrying on with the pretty coroner.

“Never hurt her before,” Jay mumbled, looking sheepish.

“ ‘Never hurt her before’?!” That brought Bee to a halt in devising ways to test Jay’s feelings for him. “How many times have you done the flashy thing to this poor woman?!”

The big blue eyes shifted evasively. “Couple.”

Bee drew back incredulous. “Aren’t you worried about, you know, long term damage?”

If anything, Jay’s reply was even more evasive than before. “Little bit.”

“What the hell happened to make you such a callous son of a bitch?”

Jay sighed. “I took this job.”

He turned about and headed out of the morgue. Jay followed.

“Hey, you never flashed me with that thing, did you?”

“Nah.” The patently sincere tone made Bee suspicious. He tried to get a look at his partner’s face to gauge his truthfulness, but Jay sped up his step so that the shorter man almost had to run to catch up to him.

Panting by the time they had exited the morgue and reached the parking lot, Bee tried a different approach. “Hey, Jay, I really think I should be in charge of the flashy memory thing department,” he wheedled.

“Not while I’m around, Chief.”

“Yeah, well you’re a menace with that thing,” he grumbled, but found he was smiling again.

At that moment an MIB containment vehicle pulled up, and three men and a woman dressed in black suits got out. He and Jay immediately turned professional. Jay started reeling off directions to the lead agent. “We’ve got two dead aliens in there, and a deputy medical coroner in need of a new memory.”

? ? ? ? ?

Not too far way, the Orkin van was parked in a dark alleyway. From inside, throaty wails of frustration could be heard. A couple of young punks who’d been casing the van heard the racket and hesitated, wondering if they should target the isolated vehicle after all.

At that moment an inhuman growl rattled the whole vehicle and the kids wised up, hurrying on their way.

Inside the van sat a very frustrated alien wearing an Edgar suit. He glared at the ornate rosewood box, now battered and scarred, but with its various locks holding tight despite the creature’s repeated attempts to claw his way into it.

He squeezed himself past the spaceship that filled the back of the van to overflowing and searched the through the exterminator’s toolboxes until he found a screwdriver. Panting, he carried it back to the front and wedged it into the thin opening between the top and the rest of the box. He smacked the screwdriver with his right fist. Nothing doing.

He bellowed in rage and hurled the box against the side of the van, where it finally cracked a hinge.

Edgar snapped it up, pried the rest of the hinge off with the screwdriver, and wrenched the top off the box. Inside, there were dozens of precious, glittering diamonds, which he promptly tossed aside as worthless. But the rest of the box was empty.

Edgar howled, “No. No, NO, NO, NOOOO!”

He ripped the box apart with his bare hands. Still, there was nothing else there.

? ? ? ? ?

The sun had yet to rise when Jay and Bee entered the MIB building. Despite the early hour, the headquarters was going full-blast. The large screen in ops displayed the familiar grouping of stars called the constellation Orion.

Jay peeled off to an unoccupied monitor station, but Bee headed straight for Zed. “Doesn’t anybody believe in sleep around here?”

Without looking away from the screen display, the director replied, “The twins keep us on Alpha Centaurian time—a 37-hour day. Give it a few months—you’ll get used to it. Or you’ll have a psychotic episode.”

He pointed up at the screen with a laser pencil. “Here’s Orion; the brightest grouping of stars in the northern sky—” He moved the point of laser light. “—and here’s Orion’s belt …” He indicated the three stars that make up the belt.

Bee’s interest binged. “That’s what the little guy was talking about, ‘To prevent war, the galaxy’s on Orion’s belt …’.”

Zed interrupted, “There are no galaxies on Orion’s belt. The belt is just these three stars. Galaxies are huge, made up of billions of stars.” He switched off the laser pointer with finality. “You heard wrong.”

“You’re attracted to me, aren’t you?” Bee quipped.

At Zed’s glare (and the sacrifice of another cigar bitten clean through), he knew it was time to make himself scarce. He beat a quick retreat to the cubicle where Jay was sitting alone, tie loosened and looking slightly dishevelled. On the monitor screen, the word “SEARCHING” blinked, encouraging patience.

Bee slid silently into an empty chair beside his friend. He decided not to break into the man’s thoughts, which appeared to be quite deep.

The image on the monitor changed to a satellite view of North America, which quickly zoomed in on the Southwest. On screen, the satellite view zoomed down to Arizona, then a city, then a neighbourhood, then a block, then a back yard. The printout changed to “SUBJECT ACQUIRED”.

The image came into sharp focus on one back yard in particular, where a middle-aged man was grilling steaks on a bar-b-que.

SUBJECT: JACK PENDERGAST PRESENT LOCATION: RESIDENCE 553 FAIRFIELD AVE./TEMPLE/AZ

The man seemed unaware that he was being watched by an eye in the sky. He called something over his shoulder, and a red-headed woman stepped out of the house carrying a couple bowls of salad. She put them down on a picnic table, then walked over and wrapped her arms about the man’s waist.

Bee looked at Jay’s brooding expression, then back at the monitor. “Handsome couple …”

Jay clicked off the picture. “Jack used to be my partner,” he mumbled.

Bee watched him carefully, and when Jay didn’t volunteer any more information, he continued, “He was the guy with the flowers in the photo, the night the aliens arrived, wasn’t he?”

Jay’s eyes were focused on a private horizon. The muscles in his face were slack, his whole attitude weary. When he started speaking, it was as though he were talking to himself. “He was on his way to a dance or something and got lost. And she never got those flowers.”

Bee waited patiently for the rest of the story. When Jay took up the narrative again, his tone was pensive. “Jack pined for her all those years he was Agent Pee. Finally the loss and loneliness got to be too much, especially when he found out that she’d never got married.”

Jay paused and closed his eyes. “Men in Black can’t have attachments. It inhibits freedom of action. So I used the neuralyzer on Jack and sent him home to Elizabeth.”

The newest MIB thought he understood. “Grumpy Guy’s story comes into focus. You got somebody waiting for you?”

“No.” He reached out and flicked a switch. The monitor went blank, except for a data screen: SUBJECT LOST.

Jay sat back in the chair and ate a potato chip morosely.

Bee—feeling more ‘Blair’ than ‘Bee’—looked at him from under his lashes: “Is this me in thirty years?”

A moment went by. Finally, Jay’s expression changed. He gave his new partner a brilliant smile that went straight to his heart. “Actually, I think I may have found someone.” He laid his hand on Bee’s stubbled cheek and stroked it gently. “Maybe you have too …”

The partners stared into each other’s eyes, lost in the moment and oblivious to the pandemonium going on around them.

Zed jarred them back to reality. “Jay. Bee. Over here. Now.”

Loath to let the private moment go, they crossed back toward the LAD (Landed Alien Display), where each of the thousand or so aliens who lived on earth were represented by a flickering light. Some lights were starting to go out.

Jay stared at the display and a note of dread came into his voice. “They’re leaving.”

Zed nodded. “We’ve had twelve jumps in the last hour. Redgick was just the beginning.”

“What do they know that we don’t know?” Bee’s voice was soft, overwhelmed.

Jay looked to his partner, then to the screen. Another light flickers out. “Why do rats desert the ship?” he replied.

Then he spoke to the twins, “Go to Lem Sat IV. Put up a forty-field view of Cascade.”

The imaged leaped. On the screen, Cascade was just a bright spot of light on the Western coast of the United States.

“Four hundred,” Jay requested.

This produced a view of the earth from space. There was nothing unusual about it.

“Four thousand.”

Earth dwindled to the size of a dime. However, at this range something became visible that didn’t belong in the picture. Drifting against the blackness of space was a huge battle cruiser. The words “Level Four” flashed in red letters on one side of the map.

“That’s an Arquillian battle cruiser.”

“And we’ve got a dead Arquillian prince,” Bee added.

A communication came through the speakers—a sound like a cat and mouse caught in a blender.

“Message coming in,” Jay said unnecessarily as all the humans and most of the aliens clutched their ears.

The communication continued. Jay murmured, “Speak of the devil.”

The caterwaul of the communication raised a notch before ceasing.

“They sound pissed,” Bee commented.

Zed whirled around to the twins. “Translate that and step on it!”

He turned back to Jay and Bee. “Meanwhile get down to Rosenberg’s store and see what you can turn up.”

Grimly, they turned away and started across the echoing space of the huge operations room.

“And Jay—” Zed yelled after them, “—take a lot of fire power.”

So they made a side trip to the equipment locker, another caged room overlooking the main complex. Bee was unsurprised to discover that Jay had a key to the big, heavy lock.

Jay looked over the display of weapons, then pulled out an enormous, many-barrelled handgun. A small, clear, canister sprouted from underneath it, malevolent swirling gases visible through its walls.

Thinking of the array of forces they might run into, Bee decided that if he had to carry a gun, a big bruiser like this was exactly the kind he wanted. “I like that,” he said.

“Series four de-atomizer.” Jay’s reply was short and clipped. He continued to scrutinize the collection until he found what he was looking for. Then, he pulled down the tiniest gun Bee had ever seen and handed it to him. “Here. We call this the ‘Noisy Cricket’.”

“You get a series four de-atomizer and I get a ‘Noisy Cricket’?!” He looked the small firearm over carefully before pocketing it. “I’m afraid I’m going to break it.”

Bee followed Jay out, glancing back just as the huge screen showed the huge gun turrets on the Arquillian Battle Cruiser swing around into position, pointed down at the unwitting planet below.

? ? ? ? ?

Smash! The window in the front door of Rosenberg’s Jewellery Shoppe collapsed in a shower of glass. Edgar reached in and fumbled with the locks, undoing them one by one. He stepped inside, ignore the fact that he was leaving his Orkin van double-parked in the street out front.

It looked like no one had been inside Rosenberg had locked the place up the evening before. All the gems and jewels were still safely displayed under glass counters. That didn’t last long. Edgar started smashing the glass, grabbing great handfuls of jewels and tossing them aside. Totally immersed in his frenzied search, he didn’t notice that outside a Metro Cascade tow truck had pulled up to the front of the Orkin van and started to hitch up.

Edgar, in his rage, started to smash anything breakable, even the framed pictures on the walls.

He stopped at one particular picture, staring intently at it. It was a glamour shot of Rosenberg’s cat, provocatively posed on a satin pillow. There were a half dozen more pictures of the cat, some posed with Rosenberg, some by itself. This animal had been important to Rosenberg.

From outside, the roar of an engine distracted Edgar. He turned around, in time to see the Orkin van lurch as the tow lifted its front wheels off the ground.

In a panic, he rushed outside just as the tow truck driver got the van up on the hoist. “That’s my truck!” he bawled.

“And make sure you tell them that at the impound,” the mechanic responded mechanically. Routine was routine, and he did this all the time.

Edgar reached into the front seat of the van and pulled out his twelve gauge. He pointed it at the tow truck driver, who looked back at him with disdain and pulled back his shirt to reveal his own mean-looking gun. “I got worse,” the foolhardy man spit out.

He kept on hitching up the van.

When Jay and Bee arrived on the scene, they walked right past the dispute, very fast, ignoring the debate in their hurry. They stopped at the smashed door of the jewellery shop and exchanged a glance, wondering if they were too late or if the thief were still inside. Jay pulled out his menacing-looking weapon, nodded, and they stepped through the broken door.

The shop was totally demolished. Precious gems glittered amid shards of broken glass. Gold and silver chains were scattered in with costume jewellery. Broken drawers hung drunkenly from shattered display cases. Despite the mess, it looked like nothing had been taken.

Bee furrowed his brow. “Who robs a jewellery store and leaves the jewels?”

“Someone who’s not looking for jewels,” replied Jim, starting his own search.

On a hunch, Bee moved behind the counter. On the floor was an ornate, empty bowl and a bag of cat food, next to a scrumptious pillow. There were several photos of a cat on the wall. There was also a pile of bejewelled cat collars. He picked up one of the collars and inspected it closely, shaking his head. “This guy had a serious crush on his cat.”

A flicker of motion through the window broke Bee’s train of thought. Outside, lumbering straight for the store, was Edgar.

Bee thought for a moment—where did he know that face?

Suddenly, Edgar raised his arms, pointing both the farmer’s shotgun and the tow driver’s pistol. Before Edgar could shoot, Bee yelled, “Jay! Get down!” and threw himself at his partner knocking him to the floor.

Hunched protectively over Jay, Bee pulled out the tiny gun he’d been given and fired—shattering the storefront window and blowing up a car on the street. The blast hurled him up and back a good ten feet, slamming him into the wall with tremendous force.

Edgar immediately turned and rushed away down the street.

“The bug in the Edgar suit!” Bee tried to yell, but the breath had been totally knocked out of him by the unbelievable recoil. He lurched to his feet and gasped, “The ugly redneck from the picture! That’s him!” He reeled through the broken storefront window and stumbled off after Edgar.

Jay picked himself up a little more slowly. He’d almost zoned from the unexpected detonation and the feel of the shock wave rolling over his body. “Damn it,” he ground out between gritted teeth and set out after Bee.

Edgar wasn’t taking any chances. He jumped over the huddled form of the tow truck’s owner, leapt behind the wheel and hit the gas. Since the key had been left in the ignition, the engine immediately roared.

Knowing he’d never be able to catch up if Edgar managed to drive away, Bee fired the Noisy Cricket again. He was thrown back into some pedestrians, while his shot hit the rigging between the Orkin Van and the tow truck, separating the two. Blair pulled himself up and huffed after the tow truck, but it accelerated too quickly.

Edgar was just about to turn the corner when Jay leapt onto a parked car to try and get some height. As Bee prepared to shoot, Edgar disappeared around the corner just as a huge truck backed into his line of fire.

Unable to stop a reflexive jerk on the trigger, Bee fired and the truck exploded. Once more he flew backwards, hurtling through the air and crashing through the window of a car, his tight young butt ending right up in the woman driver’s face.

When Bee looked up, Jay was standing before him with a stony expression. He yanked Bee out of the car. “We do not discharge our weapons in view of the public.”

Irritated at his failure to catch the alien, the newly recruited MIB snapped back, “Can we drop the cover-up bullshit?! There’s an Alien Battle Cruiser that’s gonna blow-up the world if we don’t…”

Jay’s sigh was the epitome of ‘weary’. “There’s always an Alien Battle Cruiser… or a Korlian Death Ray, or… an intergalactic plague about to wipe out life on this planet, and the only thing that lets people get on with their hopeful little lives is that they don’t know about it.” He gestured to a group of onlookers, drawn by the curious blasts from the store. There was smoking rubble everywhere.

Bee started to shake, and Jay wrapped a comforting arm about his shoulders. “Don’t worry about the bug. He’s not leaving town. We’ve got his ship.” He nodded at the back of the Orkin van, where Edgar’s spaceship was neatly stowed.

Without releasing his hold on his trembling partner, Jay pulled out his cell phone. “Zed, we’re gonna need a containment crew down here at 5th Street, south of Main.”

— Back at Men in Black Headquarters, the little lights on the world map indicating aliens’ locations were going out, one by one, about one every five or ten seconds. A warning buzzer was sounding, over and over, and human staffers were rushing left and right.

The chaos around him was so great, Zed could barely hear the voice at the other end of the connection. He chomped down on his already mangled cigar and spat his words like machine gun bullets into the phone’s mouthpiece. “Containment may be a moot point, Jay. The exodus continues. It’s like the party’s over and the last one to leave gets stuck with the check.”

At that moment, Zed happened to look down to the vast floor below and saw the four worm guys with suitcases hurrying toward the departure area. “You sorry little ingrates!” he bellowed, taking out at least some of his frustration on a convenient target. “See if I share any of my special coffee blends with you ever again!”

The electronic crackle of Jay’s voice brought Zed’s attention back to the business at hand. “What about the Arquillians?”

The director exhaled wearily. “We’ve only translated a part of the message so far: ‘Deliver the Galaxy’.”

“No, they don’t want much, do they?” Jay sounded as frustrated as he felt.

“Oh, it gets better … They’re holding us responsible.”

A klaxon blared suddenly. A new blip blazed on the solar system monitor, while a message from the newcomer scrolled across the communications screen. It read:

MIB DELIVER THE GALAXY.

Another contestant had entered the ring.

Jay closed the cell phone with a sigh and turned to Bee, who’d been picking pieces of windshield glass out of his clothing while listening to his partner’s half of the conversation. There was still a slight tremble to the young man’s body, but all in all he looked ready to return to the fray.

“All right, Chief.” Strands of the kid’s hair had come loose from the altercation, and now he reached over and tucked a loose curl behind Bee’s ear. His fingers lingered a moment, before he continued, “The Arquillians want the galaxy, whatever the hell that means.” Bee’s face darkened, so he hurried along quickly, “We need help. A professional. Someone with years of experience in intergalactic politics. Frank the Pug. I just hope the little prick hasn’t skipped town.”

Get yourself together, Jimmy-boy, he thought to himself. There’s no way I’m letting the world end now that I’ve found someone I’d like to share it with.

He turned and headed back up the street to his car, pleased to hear Bee’s footsteps following without hesitation.

? ? ? ? ?

The alien in the Edgar-skin was furious. First the meat bags had interrupted his search of the jewellery store, then they’d captured his ship! A superior being like himself shouldn’t have to put up with such nonsense!

He drove like a maniac until he realized that no one had followed him.

The tow truck squealed to a halt. Too frustrated to just sit and think about what to do next, he hopped out and walked away, fast, cursing under his breath. He ranted, livid, thinking hard. Pedestrians gave the dishevelled madman a wide berth as he gesticulated and muttered wildly to himself, oblivious to his surroundings.

Finally coming to a decision, he grabbed the first human within reach, a young vendor who’d been pointedly minding his own business and ignoring the psychotic prowling up and down the street in front of his newsstand.

Pulling the pimply little man up by his shirt collar, the alien growled, “Where do you keep your dead?”

“Dead?’ The voice was cracked with apprehension …. Dazed by the attack, the fellow seemed to find it difficult to think. “I … uh … I don’t have any dead.”

Edgar shook him like a rag doll and repeated, “Where?!”

“I don’t know ….” As the insane asylum escapee prepared to shake him again, inspiration hit. “The city morgue!”

Edgar shoved him away roughly, and was turning to leave when he spotted a postcard display marked “Landmarks of Cascade and Surrounding Area.” Edgar stared, fascinated, then reached out and picked up a colour postcard. He raised it to his face, thinking, then shoved it in his pocket and hurried off.

Rather than demanding payment, the vendor scrambled to the back of the stand and huddled terrified in the far corner until he heard the tow truck door slam and watched the mental headcase speed away into traffic.

? ? ? ? ?

On the other side of town, Jay’s LTD screeched to a halt in front of a key kiosk on South Seymour. The Men in Black climbed out and marched up to the stand in lock-step.

The shop owner was in the process of closing up. Bee took one look at the tall, gaunt creature … at the long greasy hair, pasty skin, sunken eyes and deadpan expression … and rolled his eyes. “Of course this guy’s an alien. That’s gotta be the worst disguise I’ve ever seen.”

A voice answered him, but it wasn’t the man’s. “You don’t like it, you can kiss my furry little butt.”

Bee looked down … and down … and down. The voice was coming from a small dog. This was Frank the Pug. With an effort, he managed to keep his jaw from falling this time.

Jay motioned to Bee to make sure no one could hear, then approached the alien. “You busy, Frank?”

“Sorry, Jay, I can’t talk right now; my ride’s leaving in—”

Jay pounced and grabbed up Frank, who yelped like, well, a dog.

“Call the pound. We got a stray.” It looked like Jay was actually having fun. Bee wondered if his partner and Frank had had a few run-in’s before—the confrontation had the feel of a established dialogue, an ongoing power struggle.

“Hey! Get your paws off me!” The alien’s voice seemed to hold a similar note of amusement.

Passer-bys were starting to stop and glare at Jay, who appeared to be seriously mistreating the poor little animal. Hurriedly, Bee tried to explain. “The, uh … dog owes my friend some money.” Shit! Normally he could obfuscate with the best of time, but right then he was feeling too rattled to think quickly enough.

Jay continued his interrogation as though he and the dog were someplace private and not out in the middle of the sidewalk in plain view of everyone. “Arquillians and bugs. What do you know?”

“I know nothing.” It was a perfect imitation of Sergeant Schultz. Bee found himself about to laugh despite the gravity of the situation.

“Not a thing?” Jay wasn’t thrown off his stride by the mimicry. He shook Frank the Pug, trying to force an answer.

Bee glared at anyone who stopped until they thought better of getting involved and went back to their own business.

“Stop it. Okay, okay.” Jay ceased the shaking, but he didn’t put the pug down on the ground either. “Rosenberg wasn’t some two-bit Arquillian. He was the guardian of a galaxy. They thought he would be safe with it here on earth.”

“And the bug had other plans.” It wasn’t a question. It was a statement of the obvious.

Frank wiggled but couldn’t break his captor’s grip. “The galaxy is the best source for subatomic energy in the universe. If the bugs get their slimy claws on it, kiss the Arquillians goodbye.”

Bee decided he wanted a question of his own answered. “Ask him about the belt.”

Jay lifted Frank higher until they were nose to nose. “Rosenberg said something about a galaxy on ‘Orion’s belt’. What’s he talking about, Frank?”

“Beats me.”

Without a blink, Jay began to manhandle the dog again. The pug’s teeth could be heard rattling.

A young couple burdened with shopping bags came to a halt. It looked like the young man was getting ready to intervene, probably to impress his companion. Bee blurted out, “They’re rehearsing a ventriloquist act.” Now, that was certainly better than his first explanation.

The man and woman blinked, then accepted the words at face value. They looked at each other and grinned, then walked away. The guy looked back over his shoulder and mouthed, “Good job.”

Meanwhile, Frank had had enough. “The galaxy is here,” he barked.

“Here?” Jay seemed loath to stop his assault. “A galaxy is hundreds of millions of stars and planets? How’s it here?”

If a dog could smirk, Frank did. “You humans, when’re you gonna learn that size doesn’t matter? Just ‘cause something’s important, doesn’t mean it can’t be very, very small.”

“How small?” The tone was suspicious.

“Tiny. Like the size of a marble. Or a jewel.” He squirmed. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to be walked before the flight.”

Apparently there was nothing more to be had from the alien informant. Jay let go of the dog and turned to Bee, who had become lost in thought.

“Get out of here,” he snapped over his shoulder, then proceeded to ignore the disguised space creature and his strange human ‘owner’. They promptly made their escape down the street.

“The galaxy’s here.” Jay said gently. “It’s not on Orion’s belt.”

But Bee was watching Frank the Pug trot away. As if he were a true canine, Frank stopped to bark at a cat farther down the sidewalk. At that moment, the puzzle finally came together in the anthropologist’s mind.

“Jay….”

? ? ? ? ?

Meanwhile, back at the morgue beneath Cascade PD, Samantha was sitting at her desk reviewing her notes when suddenly Rosenberg’s cat leapt up onto it from nowhere, the way cats do, landing right in the middle of the file she was studying.

Samantha jumped. “Boy, when you want attention—”

She reached out to pet the affectionate animal; and as she did, lamplight sparkled off the cat’s collar. Chucking the feline under the chin and receiving a big purr in return, the coroner turned the name tag to face her. It looked to be made of precious metal, engraved with ‘ORION’ in ornate script.

“ ‘Orion’. That’s a pretty name.”

The cat purred and butted its head against her hand for more attention.

A door bell chimed in the distance. Woman and cat ignored the sound.

Samantha noticed something dangling from the animal’s collar—a circular icon made of a strange and beautiful metal. The centre was some sort of hardened, translucent material, light green in colour.

“What’s this?” She took the unusual pendant into her hand and peered into the jewel, then her face washed over with amazement. It was as if she were sucked into another universe. Her expression went beatifically blank as she sailed through a massive star field, millions of stars, billions of green, verdant planets, all racing by her at the speed of light.

“Wow!”

Outside, the bell dinged again. Orion looked up, as if knowing who was out there, and not liking it. The cat snarled at the door and leapt off the desk, scurried across the lab and disappeared under some equipment.

Samantha blinked and came back to her surroundings as if recovering from a daydream.

— Jay and Bee barrelled through town, heading for the morgue where Rosenberg’s body and pet had been taken the previous night.

The older agent filled in the new one as he wove madly in and out of traffic. “So two galaxies have been fighting for years. And the only people who’ve been benefiting are a race of creatures called ‘bugs’.” He cut a corner sharply, and the LTD lifted onto two wheels. Without missing a beat in the lecture, he reached across Bee’s chest and protectively held his companion in place. “Then the two galaxies decide to make peace … but the bugs sent this guy down to make sure the fighting never stops.”

The intimate touch of Jay’s hand on Bee’s chest muddled the younger man’s thoughts. He couldn’t understand why the physical attraction was cropping up so strongly at a time when he should only be interested in life and death. “By killing the emissaries, and stealing the galaxy they’ve been fighting about,” he verbalized, forcing his thoughts back to the more important issue.

“And if we don’t get it back before he leaves the planet … we’re history.” Jay’s mouth set into a straight, grim line.

The scientist in Sandburg couldn’t help but add: “We’re not even history. ‘Cause history implies there’s someone around to remember it.”

— The morgue attendant, Tony, had chosen to retire to the more comfortable confines of the security cage when it had proved to be a slow day. Not only was the almost worn-out armchair better padded than the straight back metal and plastic chair behind the counter, the mesh of the cage kept most of the buzzing summer flies out.

The repeated ringing of the call bell finally worked its way through his total immersion in a worn paperback copy of Atlas Shrugged. Grumbling at the interruption, he stuck a finger in the book to mark his place and picked up the fly swatter before reluctantly emerging from his bug-free refuge.

“Thank you for making sure the bell works,” he snarked, taking in the dishevelled, shambling form of a rustic type dressed in dirty overalls. There was a distinct odour about the man. He smelled as though he belonged inside the morgue as a client, rather than walking around outside on his own two feet.

There was an increase of flies in the vicinity as they swarmed around the creature in the rancid Edgar-skin.

Suddenly, quick as a gunfighter, Tony snapped the fly swatter down on a buzzing insect. Edgar winced.

Without taking his eyes off the flying targets, Tony asked, “What’s up, Farmer John?”

“A man came in here earlier. A dead man.”

Almost all his attention centred on the irritating bugs instead of on the ‘human’ customer, Tony snapped, “And this means what to me?”

If he’d actually been looking at Edgar, he would have read the patently false tone of the reply. “He was a very dear friend of mine. And I believe he had an animal with him. A gift I gave him, a pet cat that means worlds to me. I would like it back.”

Following one of the flies with his eyes, Tony replied, “I’ll need a picture ID, written proof of ownership of the cat, or notarized proof of kinship with—”

Whack! Tony flicked the fly swatter again, sending another bug to meet its maker. Edgar gritted his teeth.

“—the deceased.”

“Don’t … do that,” the alien ground out through gritted teeth.

Whack! Still another fly went down to Tony’s expert aim.

“Do what?”

Tony looked down, to where Edgar’s hands rested on the counter. Half a dozen cockroaches streamed out of his sleeve.

“Shit!”

He ducked under the counter—and came up with a can of Raid. Edgar’s eyes bugged out.

— Moments later the LTD pulled up in front of the main Cascade PD precinct. Jay and Bee immediately jumped out, but Bee called his new partner to a stop before they could get inside. “I’ll handle this one. You wait outside.”

“What the hell for?” Jay’s expression clearly said that he was flabbergasted the newbie was ordering him around.

“Because all we have to do is walk in and get a cat—it’s not that hard. But if you go in, you’re gonna lay your Jack Webb on her and flash your brain ray in her face, and she’s gonna end up with leukemia or some shit. The woman’s a doctor, she doesn’t need you erasing half her med school classes. Take me five minutes.” And he continued into the building, leaving Jay waiting slack-jawed outside.

“Two minutes!” Jay called after him, a slow smile creeping over his face at the kid’s pluck.

— Edgar had finally found his way downstairs to the morgue. He’d immediately started questioning the female coroner, too aggravated from his encounter with the insect-murdering morgue attendant to be willing to proceed with tact. When she gave him the wrong answer, he pounced on her before she could even register the threat, picked her up easily and slammed her into the wall.

As Samantha slid down the wall, shocked and groggy, the creature leaned in, close, furious. “Where is the animal?!”

“I told you, I don’t know … it ran under some equipment! Over there.” She pointed to the far side of the room.

“Get it!” Edgar growled.

He grabbed her roughly and dragged her across the morgue, toward the clutter of equipment she had indicated. As they drew close, Orion bolted from underneath a dissection cart, raced between their legs, and leapfrogged over several small cabinets, landing on top of a very tall one with only six inches clearance between it and the ceiling. The feline’s refuge would be very hard for a human to get to.

Edgar was just starting to turn when there was the sound bell and a voice from the corridor outside. “Hello? Anybody here?”

Edgar looked up at the cat’s hiding place. No time to get it.

The bell dinged again. “Hello?” Whoever it was sounded impatient.

Roughly, Edgar pulled Samantha close and put a finger to his lips: “Shhhhhhh.”

In the corridor, Bee looked around warily. There was no sign of an attendant, no answer to the bell. He dinged once more, grimacing at the dead flies and cockroaches scattered across the white counter, then headed into the back.

When Bee stepped out into the morgue proper, he found Dr. Weaver just standing there, right up next to an examination table. He was too intent on his own purpose to register that there was no corpse on the table, just a sheet draped over it. She just stood there, in the middle of the room, staring at him.

“Uh, hi.”

“Hello.”

Looking more than a little self-conscious, Bee flashed his badge. “I’m Sergeant Friday, from the Burnaby precinct. They brought a cat in here with a corpse the other day … might have said ‘Orion’ on the cat’s name tag?”

Samantha smiled weakly. Her eyes darted down to the covered table. “Yes. That’s right.”

“Right, well, the cat is, uh—the cat’s a witness in a murder case, and I’m going to need to take it with me.” Oh, that’s lame, he thought. Must be losing my touch.

However, the lady seemed to find it perfectly normal that an animal could be a crime witness. “I don’t know where the cat is at the moment,” she replied, eyes shifting nervously.

“You don’t?”

“No.” She lowered her voice to a husky whisper. “But maybe you could take me with you instead.”

Bee blinked. “Excuse me?”

“I said, ‘Maybe you could take me with you instead.’ ” Her eyelashes fluttered, shadowing her eyes seductively.

Flirtatious by nature, Blair … er, Bee … was still, however, taken slightly aback with the speed of the charm she had turned on him. “Damn, you do start fast, don’t you?” he said appreciatively.

Samantha just stared deeper into his eyes. “I’d really like to go with you. Now.”

He just looked at her, amazed at the power he seemed to have over this woman. Giving in to the impulse, he looked over his shoulder, to make sure he had a few more seconds alone with her, leaned closer and asked, “And, uh, why exactly is that?”

Samantha rolled her eyes. She seemed irritated with him for some reason, but the attitude didn’t go with what she was saying. “I just do,” she insisted.

They were both so preoccupied that neither one noticed through the glass window that Jay had now come down into the basement too, and was standing outside in the hall waiting for the attendant to appear. He checked his watch, then leaned against the counter and pulled out a pack of gum.

Meanwhile, Bee was thoroughly enjoying himself, but Samantha seemed to be going crazy. “I have something I need to show you.” She looked down, pointedly, in the direction of her waist.

“Now slow down, you don’t have to hit the gas like that,” he said with a grin.

She leaned in and lowered her voice. “You don’t understand. You really need to see this.”

“And I will.” Shoot! What Jay didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him. Besides, he didn’t feel anything serious for the woman, even if she was a really good-looker. But it would be bad manners to turn down a lady who was offering herself up on a platter. “But we’ve gotta get something straight here—I’m gonna drive. It’s not some kind of macho trip, it’s just the way I’m used to doing things, okay?”

Outside in the hallway, Jay pulled out a stick of gum and unwrapped it. He was getting impatient with waiting.

Inside the morgue, Samantha was at the end of her rope. “Look, Stud,” she ground out. “I don’t know how many more times I’m going to get to tell you this. There’s something—” She pointed, sharply, at the examination table directly in front of her. “—that you have to help me with.”

Bee’s’s smile vanished and his jaw dropped as he finally figured it out. He started to ease his gun surreptitiously out of his pocket.

In the meantime, Jay raised the stick of gum to his mouth; but as it got close, a big glob of goo dropped from the ceiling and onto the gum, dousing his appetite.

He looked up, sharply. Above him, Tony, the counter guy, was stuck to one high corner of the ceiling by an enormous wad of viscous, dripping fluid. He was dead, a frozen look of terror on his face and the can of Raid still clutched in his hand. Jay found himself zoning on the drip, drip, drip of mucous and blood.

At that moment, Samantha screamed. The sound broke the cycle of the zone and he snapped back to himself.

Jay raced into the morgue just as the examination table exploded into the air, revealing Edgar, who had been hiding beneath it.

Everything happened at once. Bee leaped back and drew the Noisy Cricket, while Jay pulled out his series four de-atomizer, and Edgar placed his shotgun under Samantha’s chin, using her body to shield his own.

“Freeze it, Bug!” Jay shouted.

Bee threw himself in front of the girl so that Jay couldn’t get a good bead on the alien. “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!” he yelped.

Unimpressed with the bravery, Samantha griped, “Christ, are you thick!”

That stung. Focusing only on the girl he’d been flirting with, Bee paid no attention to the shambling monster holding her in a tight grip. “How was I supposed to know!?!”

Too angry to care about her captor, Samantha flashed back, “What did I have to do, sing it for you!?!”

“Maybe if you didn’t come on like a drunken prom date!”

“Oh, that’s so typical. Any time a woman shows the slightest hint of sexual independence, men just—”

Edgar had had enough of being ignored by everyone when he should have been the centre of attention. “Everybody shut up!”

Everyone froze.

Finally Jay spoke, his voice like frosty steel: “Let her go, Shit Eater.”

The bug wasn’t impressed. “Listen, Monkey Boy, I may have to take that kind of talk in my end of the universe, but compared to you humans, I’m the top rung on the evolutionary ladder. So can it, all right?!”

Jay shifted, trying to get Bee out of the line of fire. “You’re breakin’ my heart. Move six inches to your left and I’ll solve all your problems.”

The cat chose that moment to attack. It leaped off the top of the cabinet and landed on Edgar’s head, hissing and scratching and clawing for all it was worth.

The poor feline was no match for the crazed alien. Edgar snapped an arm up and whipped the animal off his head. He caught the cat under his arm, where it squalled and squirmed wildly, the icon on its collar jangling. Edgar immediately grabbed the icon, held onto it, and flung the cat away, across the morgue. The icon came free, remaining in his hand.

Grinning ferociously, Edgar dropped the jewel into his mouth and swallowed. Then, quick as a snake, he shifted and shoved his gun hard against Samantha’s cheek. “That’s better. Now put down your weapons. We’re leaving.”

Jay froze, teeth clenched, gun still in front of him. Standoff.

A calm expression settled over Edgar’s face. “Have you ever pulled the wings off a fly?” He cranked one of Samantha’s arms behind her back, hard, and she cried out in pain. “Would you care to see the fly get even?”

Jay still refused to back down. “How far you think you’ll get without your ship? If that’s what you call that hunk of space crap we’ve got back at our office.”

“Put the weapons down!” Edgar roared.

“Never gonna happen, Insect,” Jay replied.

Edgar backed away with Samantha, further into the morgue, toward a glass window that looked out at the base of an air shaft. Jay and Bee advanced, slowly, cornering him.

“It’s okay, Samantha!” Bee soothed.

“How is it okay?!”

“I mean it’s going to be okay!”

“Don’t bet on it, Meat Sack,” Edgar hissed. And with that he turned, leaped and crashed right through the window, into the air shaft. Still clutching Samantha, he took an inhuman leap and exploded up over a railing onto the sidewalk above.

Nobody looked twice as Edgar, dragging Samantha (with his arm over her mouth), raced toward the nearby busy Pender Street. After all, they were in front of a police station. If something were amiss, the police would be swarming like bees out of a hive, wouldn’t they?

Actually, Jay and Bee would have been right on the bug’s heels, if it weren’t for the fact that they were humans. They’d leaped after the escaping alien and his prisoner, ducked into the air shaft and looked up—only to find it was way too far to jump themselves, and the walls were totally smooth without any possible handholds for climbing.

“Damn it!” they snarled in unison, then turned and ran of the morgue.

Meanwhile, Edgar, with Samantha tucked securely under his arm, ran right in front of a yellow Paolo’s Cab, which screeched to a halt inches from them. The cabbie stuck his head out and yelled something in a foreign language. He kept on yelling as Edgar reached through the passenger side and pulls the driver out the door (cigarette and wooden seat-beads and all).

The cab driver continued yelling as Edgar leapt in into the vehicle, pushing Samantha in before him, leaving her behind the wheel.

From his pocket he pulled a postcard, the one he’d taken earlier from the display on the newsstand. “Take me here.”

“What???” Stupidified by everything that had happened, Samantha could only stare at the gaudy tourist card.

Edgar just cranked the car into gear—opening his mouth to flash her an evil grin revealing a triple row of serrated bug-teeth. He slammed his foot on the gas pedal. Samantha’s head snapped back as the car rocked forward. She had no choice, but to grab the wheel and start steering as the cab screeched out into the busy street, swerving wildly as Samantha was forced to make a 90-degree turn. The vehicle fishtailed violently, swiping an oncoming car as it straightened and headed into the thick of traffic.

The furious cab driver ran off after it, still yelling as he disappeared around the corner.

A second later, Jay and Bee rushed out into the street. The cab was nowhere to be seen. Jay sprinted into the street, his enhanced eye sight picking out the wooden beads, the ripped pine-scented green deodorizer, and the still-burning cigarette. “They’re in a cab.”

That was all Bee needed to set him into action. He took off down the street at a dead run, where dozens of yellow Paolo’s Cabs were waiting at the intersection. He ran from cab to cab, pounding on windows, scaring the living shit out of people. “Hey! Samantha!? Hey!” he yelled into each vehicle.

But Samantha and Edgar were nowhere to be found. Up ahead the light turned green, and the tide of taxis washed away, leaving Bee on the street. He turned as a car screeched up behind him, its headlights shining in his eyes. As it got closer, Bee saw it was Jay in the LTD.

“Stop wasting time,” Jay yelled out the window. “He’s not getting off the planet in a cab.”

? ? ? ? ?

Without knowledge of the bug’s destination, Jay and Bee had no other recourse than to return to MIB Headquarters. They rushed in from the door under the World’s Fair mural and headed toward the main display screen. All around them, the MIB staffers were in frenetic activity in response to the threat from above.

Jay grabbed a passing technician by the shoulder and dragged him over to a desk. “Come with me. Put up a bio-net all the way around Cascade. If it’s not human, it’s not leaving the city.”

Then he turned to Zed, who was standing at the front of the room beneath the primary data display, like a marine captain at the prow of his ship. “What’ve we got from our friends upstairs?”

Without taking his eyes off the screen, the big black man replied, “Same thing: ‘Deliver the galaxy.’ ”

Jay flopped down in an empty chair. “Yeah, well the bug’s got the galaxy, but we’ve got his ship. He’s got to be looking for a way out.”

Just then, a loud alarm wailed. On the main viewing screen, a green line shot out from the Arquillian ship. With lightning speed it zoomed across the darkness of space, glowed even more brightly as it struck atmosphere, and blew up a chunk of Antarctica. Every bell, whistle and warning light imaginable went off.

“What the hell are they shooting at us for?!” Bee bleated.

“Arquillian battle rules, kid,” Zed replied. “First we get an ultimatum, then a warning shot, then we have a galactic standard week to respond.”

“A galactic standard week? How long is that?”

“One hour.”

“One hour?” He turned to Jay for confirmation, only to find his partner fully zoned from the surrounding pandemonium.

Above Jay’s immobile head, the viewing screen now read:

MIB DELIVER THE GALAXY OR THE EARTH WILL BE DESTROYED...

SORRY.

Zed snorted petulantly. “To keep the Bugs from getting it, the Arquillians will destroy the galaxy and whatever planet it’s on.”

“You’re talking about us!”

“Sucks, doesn’t it, kid?”

The director turned back to the screen and called out to the twins, who were among the few aliens still on earth. “Pull up the locations of all land-based interstellar vehicles.

“They’re all gone, boss,” the twin on the left replied in a squeaky voice. “Frank the Pug took the last ship on the planet.”

The room gradually quietened as people slowly came out of their paralysis and hit the necessary buttons to reset the alarms. Ominous foreboding filled the control room. No one spoke aloud unless they had to, and then the communication was made in a hushed voice. Mostly, everyone sat in their seats and watched the machine scroll through the data.

Bee gave himself a mental shake and turned back to his partner, who was still staring blankly into the air, the muscles of his handsome face now slack and giving him a highly vulnerable look.

Worried, the younger man slipped over to his partner’s side. He reached out to stroke the pale cheek, and found it cold to the touch although damp with sweat. What’s going on here? he asked himself. This wasn’t the first time he’d seen the tougher-than-nails agent fade out on the world. He remembered the moment of blankness in Zed’s office the day before, when it had seemed that Jay was actually looking through his skin. There was also the odd hesitation before joining the chase at the jewellery shop.

The weird fugues weren’t the only strange characteristics he’d observed in the man. That night when they’d sat together on the park bench overlooking the bay, Jay’s eyes had tracked ships too far out for Blair to see. He’d also been able to follow the zipping energy ball accidentally released into the operations room. More than once, he’d overheard a complaint that Bee hadn’t intended him to hear.

The more he thought about it, the more excited the anthropologist became. There was the sense of taste. Jay had found Beatrice’s lemonade far too sour, whereas Blair had only grumbled because it had been too weak. And the way that Jay had sniffed him back on the park bench as though he were inhaling a subtle odour off Blair’s skin…. He remembered the delicate stroke of Jay’s fingers upon his skin and decided that the sense of touch must be heightened as well.

“A sentinel!” Sandburg breathed reverently. He’d dreamed of finding his very own personal sentinel all the way through his undergrad studies. His Master’s thesis had even hypothesized the need of a guide for the genetic superman—someone to watch his back and to help him when his senses overloaded. But he’d never found anyone with all five senses, so he’d given up the study when he started his doctorial work and had concentrated on closed societies for his dissertation instead.

A niggling memory came to the front of his mind. He recalled the feeling of unease he’d experienced while undergoing the MIB testing. Jay had told him that he’d watched everything through the one-way window. What if Jay had zoned during that period? What if Blair’s unexplainable distress had been an instinctive reaction to the zone? What if …?

An alien voice chattered over a loudspeaker, breaking Sandburg’s train of thought. He stared at Jay’s vacant face while the noise of ops started to rev up again. There was no time to examine the implications of his discovery. Unless the galaxy could be retrieved, the world would end in less than an hour. But if they saved the world, then what a myriad of possibilities the future held!

Apparently Jay had zoned on the bewildering mix of clamour and blinding lights when the alarms had gone off. Perhaps stimulating one or more of the sentinel’s other senses would bring his out of it.

Blair leaned forward and instinctively pretended to be whispering to his colleague. Secrecy was automatic. He blew a warm, humid breath on the sensitive shell of the ear, then darted out his tongue to lick the lobe. There was a taste of salt and something else… perhaps the essence of the man. He sucked the ear lope into his mouth, then allowed it to slide in and out with a rhythmic stroking motion. Occasionally he would interrupt the action to plant a wet kiss on the corner’s of Jay’s lips and to whisper, “Come back to me, man. I’m here for you. You’re safe ‘cause I’m here now, and I’m gonna look after you from now on.”

Slowly warmth flowed back into the chilled skin. The eyes brightened and took on awareness. The facial muscles realigned into a bemused smile. Still, Jay’s first words caught Blair by surprise. “Is that a promise, Chief? ‘Cause I’m definitely taking you up on it.”

“It’s more than a promise,” the young man whispered huskily. “It’s a certainty.”

Their eyes locked as they silently pledged themselves to each other.

And in that moment of perfect happiness, the answer they were seeking popped fully formed into Bee’s consciousness. He cleared his throat and turned back to the room at large. “Uh, gentlemen.”

No one paid him the slightest bit of attention until Jay bellowed over his shoulder. “Okay, everybody, listen up now.”

The babble stopped immediately, and all eyes (and/or equivalent organs) fixed on the two men.

Bee blushed at being the focus of everyone’s attention. Shyly he indicated the huge painting over the door. “Do those still work?”

They followed his gaze, up, over the computer terminals. There, on the wall in front of them, where it had loomed since the room had been built, was an enormous mural of the 1964 World’s Fair grounds. Most prominent in the mural were two tall towers that rose dramatically from the ground, topped by the two flying saucers from the very first alien contact.

? ? ? ? ?

At that precise moment, a yellow taxi screeched to a halt in front of the real towers at the fairgrounds. Subdued lighting muffled the exotic forms in drifting shadow, making the saucers at the top look ghostly.

Edgar shoved Samantha out through the driver’s door and followed behind her, still holding his weapon on her. He looked up triumphantly at the nearer of the two spaceships. Then he gave the human a push to start her walking. “You’re coming with me,” he informed her.

“What?! Why?!”

“It’s a long trip. I’ll need a snack.” And once more he shoved her ahead of him, off in the direction of the two towers with the space-ship-shaped observation decks twirling slowly on top. The postcard slipped unnoticed from Edgar’s crumbling hand. It fluttered to the ground face up. The front of the card read, “Rainier Meadows, Site of the 1964 World’s Fair” above a distinctive photograph of the spaceships.

— Night had fallen, and the city hummed along—just another typical Thursday night in Cascade, WA. The clock in the bell tower on the Rainier campus said 7:45. TVs in the window of Gershwin’s Furniture Warehouse showed a rerun of Cheers. The electronic ticker in Seymour Square at the heart of the financial district announced the latest shattering news:

RAIN LIKELY—TEMPS DROP TO 60S

Obviously the destruction of Antarctica was being held back from the public.

Earthlings continued about their business, blissfully unaware of their impending doom.

Jay and Bee leapt into Jay’s LTD and slammed the doors. Jay jammed the key in the ignition, the car roared to life, and he turned to Jay with a shit-eating grin. “Whaddya say we bag us some bug?” He hit the gas and the car rocketed away from the curb.

The black car tore through the city night. Jay turned sharply to the right, throwing Bee sideways in his seat. Looking up ahead to find the reason for the sharp change in direction, he saw the entrance to the midtown tunnel. “You’re taking the tunnel?!”

“You know a better way to the fairgrounds?”

“It’s usually jammed?!” But it was too late to ask Jay to take a different route. The car had already dove into the yawning maw of the subterranean autoroute and was racing through the tunnel at top speed.

It was clear driving for a few seconds, but then they rounded a bend and found a traffic jam up ahead. Jay approached the line of cars at top speed, with no intention of slowing down. Bee, terrified, held on for dear life. “I told you!” he moaned.

“Bee. The button?”

“Yeah?!”

“Push the button, Bee.”

A lighted panel rotated into place between the two front seats, the red button once more flashing underneath its plastic shield. Bee flipped back the plastic cover and jammed his finger down on the blinking light.

“And you may want to put on a seat belt,” Jay added.

As the LTD rocketed toward the traffic jam, it began to evolve, its shape actually changing. The sides and back extended as some sort of endoskeleton pushed the “normal” panels out. The vehicle morphed into a larger, wirier machine, held together by an elaborate series of mechanical muscles and metallic tendons.

Still, the car hurtled toward certain death in the traffic jam. But at the last possible moment Jay turned the steering wheel and the vehicle swerved off to the side, a sucking sound coming from underneath it. To Bee’s surprise, instead of banging off the wall of the tunnel, the LTD actually clung to it. It swerved up onto the wall and hung there, racing by the traffic below. It kept going, turning all the way over and driving upside down, wheels clinging to the roof of the tunnel.

Bee fell from his seat with a thunk, onto the upside down ceiling of the car. The loose end of the seatbelt bonked him with the buckle. Balled up on the back of his neck, he peered out the window as they tore through the passageway, zooming over the bottlenecked traffic underneath.

As they raced along unimpeded, they had a moment to kill.

“Which do you prefer?” Jay asked casually. “Bottom or top?” Keeping one hand on the wheel, he reached out and caressed Bee’s firm young butt displayed appealingly by his upside down position.

“What?!?”

“For sex, I mean.”

“I don’t care!!” Bee wailed. His past was flickering past his eyes even faster than the tunnel lights were whipping by.

“Hey, just a common courtesy. It bothers some people if you assume they’re one when they’re really the other.”

Bee gave up struggling to right himself and closed his eyes, suffering through the ride, but not silently. From outside the car, as it rocketed along on the roof of the tunnel, could be heard Bee’s scream as it went on … and on.

“Yeah, it’s hard to tell nowadays. Stereotypes aren’t what they used to be. Course whichever you prefer is fine with me, kid. I swing both ways.”

And they shot out the other end of the tunnel and flipped over, banging back down onto the road with a thud. Bee tumbled off the ceiling and slammed into his seat.

“Well, back to work,” Jay sighed. He took his hand off Bee’s thigh and placed it back on the steering wheel.

Approaching a toll booth, the LTD shot across nine lanes of traffic and through the only open booth, shattering the gate. Traveling at about two hundred miles an hour, Jim nonchalantly flipped a token out the window—and it chinked into the basket as their taillights disappeared into the distance.

Edgar climbed the outside of the landing tower of one of the space ships, pushing his captive up ahead of him, headed for the saucer at the top.

“Come on, let me go, you don’t want to eat me,” Samantha whined. “I’m a very important person on my planet,” she quickly prevaricated. “Like a queen. A goddess, even. There are those who worship me, yes.” Her words started to run together as she did her best to convince her captor. “I’m not trying to impress you with this, I’m just letting you know. It could start a war.”

Her words got the opposite reaction from what she’d been aiming for. “Good. War means food for my family, all seventy-eight million of them. That’s a lot of mouths to feed, your highness.”

“You’re a wonderful dad,” she spat back sarcastically. And with that she kicked him squarely in the face. Edgar reeled, momentarily losing his grip. She took advantage of the moment and flung her herself out, into the air.

Edgar flailed after her, but she had already fallen beyond his reach. She tumbled through the air and landed in the branches of a tree. She hit hard, the branches rattling, and reached out and hung on for dear life, high above the ground.

Unwilling to waste more time on the human female, Edgar went back to climbing.

— Over by the deserted taxi, the LTD came to a looooong, skidding stop.

Bee started off towards the towers, but Jay called him back. The car trunk flipped open to reveal an extraordinary stash of weapons.

The two men scarfed up whatever guns looked most dangerous. Jay grabbed a black box, unsnapped a row of latches, and opened it, revealing two of the most wicked-looking shotguns on the planet: three feet long, triple-barrelled, over and under and under, plus a pump action reloader on top of a storage clip for a dozen more shells. The shells themselves were solid, glistening like polished steel. Jay loaded up the clips and handed one of the weapons over to Bee. “You know how to work that?” he asked.

The younger man pumped it once, with supreme confidence. “No idea whatsoever.”

Jay slammed shut the trunk, revealing the flying saucers sitting atop their columns in the distance. “Let’s bag us some bug.”

As if on cue, one of the saucers began to hum. Then it started to spin, faster and faster. The ship began to rise.

“Oh, shit.”

Samantha sat in her tree, watching with amazement.

At Cascade Stadium, a Sonics game was in progress. Behind the home plate side, the flying saucer silently rose up in the night sky, plainly visible.

But at that very moment, the batter cracked into a fastball, hard. The crowd rose to its feet, shouting, staring out at centre field, where the ball was headed. All eyes in the house were on the Sonics’ centre fielder, except for his eyes, which were on the flying saucer behind home plate. His eyes widened, his jaw dropped—and the catchable ball sailed over his head, thudding into the wall behind him. The crowd booed viciously.

Jay raised the weapon he’d taken from the trunk and nodded at Bee to do the same. “Set it to pulsar level five, sub-sonic implosion factor—”

“What?”

“Press the little green button… on ‘three’.”

Bee raised his weapon, his finger hovering over the button.

“One… two…” They pulled their triggers simultaneously.

For a moment, nothing happened, as if it were a misfire. But then, there was a vacuum whump, like all the air in the immediate area being sucked into a space the size of a dime, and a tremendous shock wave rolled toward the barrel of the guns. The black-clad agents were sucked to the ground by the bizarre force, thudding to their stomachs like magnets to a refrigerator.

The shock waves wrinkled across the open space between them and the flying saucer. Then it hit the ship—and it too was sucked back down, hurtling back toward them in a frightening blur.

Samantha flinched as the flying saucer shot overhead. It smashed through the Unisphere, an enormous steel globe, and thudded to the earth, crashing through brush, dirt and rock….

Jay and Bee crawled shakily to their feet. In front of them, the dust slowly cleared to a view of trees uprooted, stones and dirt thrown everywhere. A dumpster had even been cast, upside down, to their left.

And the saucer was there, directly in front of them, embedded in the earth, tipped off-kilter in a mound of debris.

A hatch opened up … revealing Edgar, who advanced toward them with contained fury. “You don’t get it, pipsqueaks,” Edgar gloated. “You can’t stop me for more than a moment. I’ve won. It’s over.”

Ignoring the taunting words, Jay held his position and coolly said, “You are under arrest for violating number 4-1-53 of the Tycho accord. Please hand over any galaxy you might be carrying.”

The alien, however, reacted as though stung. “You milk-suckers! You don’t matter! In a few seconds you won’t even be matter!”

“Move away from the vehicle and put your hands on your head.” Jay pumped the gun for emphasis.

“Put my hands on my head?” Edgar rasped out incredulously.

He stared fixedly at the two human, then flexed his arms, still encased in flesh. Giant pincers ripped free of the rotting skin. He extended both pincers to the sides, revealing a reach of at least twelve feet across. Next, the skin and clothes on Edgar’s legs began to crack and shred. They burst apart, revealing two hideous, doubled-over insect legs. The bug raised himself aloft on his legs, towering over the two humans.

He sucked in a deep breath of air, and the rest of the Edgar suit went the way of the arms and legs: the torso exploded in a great rendering of cloth and skin. Finally, Edgar’s head simply burst apart, spattering against the walls. Edgar was now revealed in his true form: a hairy, bug-like exoskeleton, a scaly tail with a long stinger, a head like a cobra with elliptical eyes and a small nose, and two horse-like feet with three toes each.

He raised his pincers in the air, resting them on his head. The galaxy hung on a chain around his neck. “Like this?” he asked with patent innocence.

Jay hissed and Bee gulped. Then they pumped their guns and aimed at the bug.

Without warning, the monstrous insect spat, and a huge, slimy wad of goo shot from his mandibles and engulfed both shotguns. The bug snorted it back, tearing the weapons from the Men in Black’s grasp. To their amazement, Edgar proceeded to swallow the guns.

Jay and Bee had only a second to react to the loss of their weapons before the fiend attacked once more. It swiped at them with the back of it’s clawed hand, like someone brushing aside a gnat—and sent them flying fifteen feet in the air.

From her perch in the tree, Samantha flinched as she saw them fly past her and hit the ground hard. She started to climb down to help them. It wasn’t a rational thing to do—but then, there was nothing rational about the whole situation.

Bee grunted and sat up groggily. “That so did not go the way I’d planned.”

As one, the two men lifted their eyes to see the bug had turned away, dismissing them as any further threat, and headed for the second tower—and the second flying saucer.

Jay scrambled to his feet. “This guy’s really starting to bug me.” He stalked forward. “He comes to my planet … my city … and he attacks people I’m supposed to protect!” The handsome, heroic face purpled with anger.

He called back over his shoulder, “Whatever happens, Chief, don’t let him get on that ship.”

“Where are you going?” Bee yelled, struggling to his own feet.

“Getting my gun back.”

“What!?”

Ignoring all attempts to call him back, Jay stepped forward and shouted at the departing alien, “Hey, bug!”

The insectoid just kept moving toward the ladder.

“I’m talking to you, bug!” Jay bellowed even louder. He sounded distinctly like Zed. “You know how many of your kind I’ve swatted with a newspaper?”

That caught the creature’s attention all right. He whipped around toward Jay. It was interesting to see that emotion—at least rage—could be read in an exoskeleton’s face.

Jay stepped right up to the enraged extraterrestrial, the small human facing off bravely—and suicidally—against the giant beast.

Moving quietly so as not to draw attention to herself, Samantha finally made it to the ground. Seeing both men were on their feet again, she scurried off into the darkness of the woods.

Jay was all the way up in the bug’s face now, its dripping fangs inches from his own face. “You’re just a smear on the sports page to me, you slimy, gut-sucking, intestinal parasite!” he taunted. “Eat me!”

The bug reacted lightning quick—cranked open its massive jaws with a deafening hiss, lunged forward and sucked Jay into its huge mouth. It straightened up to its full height and threw its head back. Jay slid down the creature’s throat, bending it sideways as he kicked and screamed his way down into its abdomen.

Bee looked on in stunned horror as the bug turned back to him, stretched to its full height and let loose a hideous screaming howl of triumph.

Watching from her hiding place in the shadows, Samantha shuddered and put her hands over her ears. She closed her eyes, fearing the monster would eat Bee next.

The young man himself quaked as the alien’s shriek of victory went on … and on … and on. He felt totally defeated.

He was about to turn tail and run, when something odd about the space being’s appearance caught his eye. He could hardly believe what he was seeing as he focused on the creature’s stomach—through the leathery pouch of the bug’s abdomen, he could make out the distended outline of the two atomizers … and just a few inches from them, a human hand was reaching toward the gun. “JAY!” he breathed reverently as he imagined his partner swimming in the bug’s intestinal fluid, using his heightened sense of feel to find his way to the gun … holding his breath, eyes stinging—

Bee knew what he had to do. He picked up a good-sized chunk of concrete that had been dislodged by the crashing saucer and hurled it at the bug. “Hey! Come over here and try that!”

The concrete thunked off the insect’s carapace. It didn’t even seem to notice; just kept moving.

Not about to give up that easily, Bee picked up a twisted metal pole and cast himself at the bug, screaming, “Stop right there, or I’ll start wailing on your waxy, pointed ass!”

He started pounding on the bug with this makeshift weapon, being careful to avoid hitting the stomach where his partner continued reaching for the gun. If he read the bulges in the insect’s abdomen correctly, Jay almost had his fingers around the stock.

At that moment the hammering on its shell caused the monster to lurch, and the gun shifted away.

The bug grabbed the metal pole and yanked it out of Bees’s hands. He swung at the human, but the young man dodged the blow, slipped and fell to the grass.

The Bug sliced down with razor-sharp claws at the young MIB agent, who barely managed to shift out of the way, just as the mean-looking claws dug into the grass.

He rolled to a halt right underneath the bug’s splayed legs. It was a daunting place to be, even when his hand fell on something in the grass—another piece of debris, a sharp metal spike, gleaming like a dagger. He grabbed the jagged scrap of metal and looked up at the bug’s apparently vulnerable underbelly, right above him. He wrapped both hands around the spike and prepared to shove it up into the bug’s gut. Before he could complete his intention, insect bent its head down between its legs and peered at him. It opened its jaws and snapped. Bee hastily propelled himself backward out of harm’s way.

Contemptuously, the extraterrestrial turned away and started climbing the tower. Bee howled in frustration. “What! are you afraid of me? Come on! Stand and fight like an arthropod!”

When the creature continued to ignore him, he howled like a wolf and threw himself on the bug, hanging onto its back, trying to drag it down. “You want a piece of this, huh?! Maybe you’re a bad ass in your hive, man, but this is Cascade, Washington, the most dangerous city on Earth. You’re just another tourist here!”

Casually the bug flicked him off with his tail, sending him sailing twenty feet through the air to crash into the dumpster. He landed in a heap on the spilled garbage.

But, scratched and beat-up as he was, Bee still refused to quit. He propelled himself back to his elbows and yelled at the giant insect, shaking his fist at the creature. “You’re messing with the wrong species, bug—”

He noticed something on his arm … a cockroach was running down his sleeve. He flicked it off, glanced down at the ground and saw another roach. He turned to the dumpster behind him, where there were more of them—a whole mob, in fact—fifty or sixty of the critters, climbing out of a rusted hole in the battered garbage container.

Bee had one last desperate idea. He kicked at the dumpster. Part of the side was rusted paper thin, and it broke apart and crumbled to pieces. Tens of thousands of roaches poured forth through the hole, crawling away from the disturbed garbage in a black river of waving antennae, pumping segmented legs, and heaving shell backs that glittered eerily in the moonlight.

Bee leaped to his feet and ran over to the glistening horde of insects. “Hey, bug!” he yelled at the top of his voice. He stepped on a cockroach making a loud CRUNCH.

Halfway up the ladder, Edgar flinched. He hated that sound.

Bee smiled. The grimace had nothing pleasant about it. “If I’m not mistaken, that was a cousin of yours.”

He knew he was getting to the monster. He stepped toward the insectoid—moving his foot over another roach. CRUNCH! He crushed it too.

“Whoa! That had to hurt. And, what d’you know, here’s your old Uncle Bob!” He stepped forward again, and a cockroach squished nosily beneath his sole.

The alien bug finally turned around, anger burning in its eyes.

Through the distended abdomen, Bee could just make out Jay’s hand reaching closer and closer to the gun….

So he kept moving toward the giant extraterrestrial insect, finding new roaches to tread on. He held his foot over an extra big one. “What’s that? Can you hear what he’s saying? ‘Help me! Help me!’ ”

CRUNCH.

The bug started climbing down the tower and moving toward Bee.

The young man kept right on crushing bugs as he approached the angry alien, who was now coming at him in a loping run. Bee stopped, poising his foot over yet another roach. “Ooh! There’s a pretty one. That one looks kinda familiar, don’t you think? I know who that is!”

The bug was practically on top of the agent, jaws dripping ready to gobble him up. “Don’t do that!”

Bee stared right back at the insect. Inside its stomach, he saw Jay’s hand closing around the trigger of the shotgun. He blinked as he saw Jay bringing it around, pointing it outward.

To gain time, he continued his baiting. “That’s your Momma!”

He moved to crunch the roach—and the alien moved to chomp Bee. The young man stared up at the giant, unflinching. “Didn’t she ever teach you not to bite off more than you can chew?”

Just as the last word came out of Bee’s mouth, Jay blasted a hole right in the middle of the alien bug’s midsection. The front of the insect’s thorax exploded in a shower of viscous body juices all over Bee. The creature split into two pieces—the butt end sailing one way; the head flying behind Bee.

Jim tumbled out onto the ground in a mess of goo and gasping for breath. He dropped the atomizer from slippery fingers.

The other gun, which had dropped out of the beast’s stomach at the same time, bounced off into the darkness.

The icon dropped from the smoking edge of the shattered thorax, rolled over to Jay’s feet, and clattered to rest like a silver dollar on a barroom floor. He calmly bent down and picked it up.

Now that the scare for his new love was over, Bee found himself thoroughly pissed. He started in on Jay, “You son of a—”

The senior agent held up a finger in a ‘wait a minute’ gesture and pulled out his cell phone, hitting the speed dial. “Zed. Get a message to the Arquillians. We have the galaxy.”

Later Jay would swear that he could hear Zed’s smile as the director glanced over at the monitor that displayed alien arrivals and departures on the earth. Apparently, the red lights were already coming back on, since Zed replied, “I think the word’s already out. Our friends are coming back.”

Without missing a beat, Zed was back to business as normal, “Got an authorized landing at Eaton Square. You and Bee check it out on the way back.… And pick me up one of those tube steaks, while you’re at it. Extra mustard. I feel like celebrating.”

Jay flipped the phone closed with a grin and turned to his partner. “You were saying?”

“Getting eaten!? That was your plan!?”

Jay shrugged. “Worked.”

As they argued, behind them, unseen, the front half of the bug raised itself up on its forearms, eyes gleaming with hate, jaws dripping—ready to lower itself onto them.

“After I got the shit beat out of me!”

“And I almost got digested. It goes with the job.”

“You coulda told me what you were doing.”

“There wasn’t time, Sport!”

HISSS! The bug attacked, swinging its head down on them. They turned just in time to see it, but before the jaws could snap down on their heads, there was a loud BOOM, and the insectoid head exploded into a million bits. Bug juice showered down everywhere, bucketsful of gloop drenching Jay and Bee even further.

Recovering their wits, they turned to discover Samantha standing over the dead bug, her hands clenched on the other atomizer that had rolled off into the darkness earlier. The barrel was still smoking, the weapon and Samantha both dripping with Bug innards. “Interesting job you guys got,” she said. Instead of looking scared, she looked energized.

? ? ? ? ?

The Daring Duo—i.e., Jay and Bee—were totally exhausted by the time they arrived back at Men in Black Headquarters. When Samantha, who occupied the back seat, started to get out of the car too, Jay motioned her to stay where she was. She slumped back wearily and closed her eyes.

The two men moved just far enough away from the LTD that she couldn’t hear what they were saying.

“Look, I know we got rules,” Bee argued, “but she did just bust the bug for us. And so maybe you don’t have to flashy thing her.”

Jay pulled out the neuralyzer.

“Who’s she gonna tell, anyway? She only hangs out with dead people.”

“It’s policy.” When Bee drooped, Jay put his hand under stubbled chin, forcing the rebellious blue eyes to look up into his own. “She’s got to pass the recruiting test before we can let her remember things like what happened tonight.”

“You mean—?” Hope smoothed out the worry lines.

“After what I’ve seen tonight, she’s a prime candidate. She’ll pass all the tests, no doubt about it. But I pity the poor agent who gets her assigned as his junior partner. She’s sure to be a handful.”

“Huh!? Is that a backhanded reference to your junior partner?”

“Nope.” Jay dropped a heavy, possessive arm about the young man’s shoulder and steered him back in the direction of the LTD. “For you, ‘handful’ is way too much of an understatement.”

They walked along companionably for several steps, then Jay said. “My name is Jim … Jim Ellison. Don’t ever let Zed know I told you…” and he dropped a kiss onto the full lips as a bribe.

? ? ? ? ?

Within a few days, the events of the previous week had already been forgotten at MIB Headquarters as the pressure of the latest extraterrestrial diplomatic crisis took precedence. Except for a few odds and ends, exposure had been contained, as Bee could tell from his perusal of the latest tabloids. There were only two headlines that had anything to do with what had actually happened, and they were something no one would ever lend credulity to: “Sonics’ Centerfielder Says: ‘UFO made me miss home run ball!’ ” and “Detroit has car that defies gravity! Secret Tests in Cascade’s Midtown Tunnel”.

Bee put down the papers as the animatronic display started up in the shooting gallery below the one-way window. While the other recruits (a Marine and a Coast Guard) took out the hook-headed alien and the snarling beast, Samantha dropped her gun, picked up a chair, and whacked the little girl robot over the head.

“She’ll do,” came Jay’s throaty whisper right beside Bee’s ear. Warm breath washed over the organ, followed by a butterfly kiss to the lobe.

Bee leaned into the embrace, marvelling at the fierce joy welling up from the pit of his stomach. He and Jay had headed straight to Jay’s loft as soon as they’d gone off duty the morning after saving the world. It and its big ceramic tile shower were closer to MIB Headquarters than Bee’s place was, and both men had been more than eager to clean themselves of bug gore. They’d shed their clothes immediately and hopped in together, quickly leathering up and washing each other. But the strokes had turned into caresses, and the caresses had led to…. He blushed as he remembered the first, heated consummation of their love.

They’d made love the following night, and would make love this night as well, after Bee moved his things into Jay’s loft.

He reached up and tilted Jay’s head down for a long, demanding kiss.

Unfortunately, they were interrupted by Zed’s arrival in the observation. A loud “Harrumph” caused them to break apart regretfully.

“Keep it to your own time, fellows,” their boss admonished. “There’s work to be done. The High Consulate of Regent-9 emissary wants floor seats to the Knicks-Bulls game.”

Jay sighed, but didn’t let go of his partner’s hand. “I’ll talk to Dennis Rodman, it’s his damn planet.”

“Let’s roll,” Bee added with a grin.

And the Sentinel in Black with his Guide in Black set out on another day of guarding the tribe of humanity.

On the highway, the LTD was just one of many cars in a jam-packed Cascade city block.

From up in the clouds, downtown Cascade itself was just part of a much larger urban and suburban sprawl.

From the stratosphere, the western coast of the United States was just part of a much larger land mass.

From the ionosphere, North America was just a small portion of the planet Earth.

From space, Earth was just a tiny ball in our solar system.

From the middle of The Milky Way, our solar system was no more than a few blips of light in a vast star field.

From outside our galaxy, the Milky Way was just a creamy spiral amid innumerable other creamy spirals.

From the outer reaches of the universe, there seemed to be an edge to what could be seen, a curved border that seemed to close in on things around the perimeters, until everything that existed was contained in one tiny ball—a marble resting on a strange-looking patch of red dirt. An alien hand reached down and flicked the marble, sending it skittering and bouncing across the dirt, where it clicked into a dozen other big blue balls just like it.

Fade out….

The End

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Acknowledgments: Thank you to Patt for all of the lovely artwork.