George was crouched in the bushes, staring at the backpack lying on the path in front of him. Not so much at the unconscious girl next to it—he wasn’t hungry enough to try his hand at cannibalism—but he wondered if he could steal it before she woke up. It could be a trap, though. A nice backpack dropped in the middle of Central Park, enticing hungry scavengers like him with the possibility of food. He’d have to give it up for whoever set it, if it was a trap. The fall the girl took earlier had certainly looked convincing.
George decided to chance it. He quietly shifted his feet through the mass of brown leaves (everything seems to be brown since the aliens) and hungrily advanced on the backpack. Greedily, he reached out and picked up the backpack. It was heavy, which was good. George started to walk away.
“Hey!” exclaimed a voice from the ground. “What’re you doing with my bag?”
“Oh,” said George, turning around to look at a girl who couldn’t have been older that twelve. “Is this yours?”
“Who’s else would it be?”
George paused. “What if you stole it? Then it could be anybody’s. I’d have a moral obligation to return it to whoever you took it from. I wouldn’t judge, but I’d have to do the right thing- times being what they are.”
“And how are times?”
“I wouldn’t know,” said George. “I don’t believe in a singular time, let alone a plural one.”
“Take it then,” said the girl with infinite resignation. “There’s no point arguing about something as trivial as property with someone who doesn’t believe in time.”
George wanted to turn around and walk away right then and there. To take literally the figurative statement, which was probably said to elicit some human feeling or something. But George was in the mood for being manipulated, so he handed the backpack over to her.
The girl stood up and made a big show of checking inside the bag to see if George had taken anything. “Do you normally steal other people’s belongings?”
“Only friends. I’m George, by the way.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Christina.”
“You wouldn’t happen to have any food with you, George?”
And with that, the trap was sprung.
George nodded wearily. “A bunch of us have a stockpile at the Museum of Modern Art. The General—he looks after it—gives out rations every night. I suppose you could join us. Just for one night.”
“I think I’d like that.”
And George led the way out of Central Park, admiring the expert way he’d been manipulated. And by someone so young. Although he’d failed at finding food, he’d succeeded in giving it away. Times really are what they are.
The Museum of Modern Art’s upkeep had declined in recent years. The whole of New York City’s had. That’s what happens when ninety percent of all people die- the upkeep declines. The black squares that made up the Museum’s façade were chipped in places, and you could see the squalor of everything inside. George led the way into the building with Christina trailing behind him.
“Weren’t there meant to be paintings and stuff in here?” asked Christina, gesturing to the empty walls.
“It gets cold in the winter,” said George. “The General kept a few Van Gogh’s and Picassos’ with him for old times’ sake, but all that canvas makes for good kindling.”
“What’s this General like, anyway?”
“He’s a bit of a nut but means well. He stockpiled a bunch of food before the aliens came and wrecked everything, which makes him the leader, I guess. As far as anyone can really be a leader now, though.”
They came to a greenish staff door which opened onto a flight of stairs. George led the way down the steps to a darkened service corridor; a low humming reverberated through the air.
“What’s that sound?” asked Christina.
“The Museum’s generators,” said George. “They’re not much, but they keep the place warm. And the lights stay on at night, which is nice. I must say, you’re awfully calm. Following a stranger into an abandoned building like this.”
“I can run.”
“So can I.”
“Humans don’t taste very good. If that’s what you’re thinking about.”
“How do you know what humans taste like?”
The corridor was long, and they walked down it in silence. At the end of it there was another staff door, which George opened. Inside was a largish room that had about twenty people in it, all huddled together in clumps. They were dressed—like George and Christina—in rags, which made it look like the basement was being held hostage by a group of homeless people. A large red generator had been dragged into the centre of the room and was rattling and thundering away. George waved to some people he knew and sat down against a wall.
“When’s this General character going to appear, anyway?” asked Christina after taking in the scene.
George gestured to another staff door at the other end of the room. “Any minute now. He’s normally punctual, which is good. I like my Generals punctual- especially in times of hunger.”
“You’re taking the piss.”
And the General’s door was thrown open with a loud bang. Silence. A thin figure appeared from the gloom. And the General—dressed in a crusty military uniform with his white hair fluffed up—entered the room. Slowly, reverentially, holily, he pushed a toy cart containing various canned goods into the room and returned to the doorway. He waited until everybody had a can, then began to speak:
“Indulge me, children, as I pontificate. Before we satiate our base desires for sustenance it is best to remember the cause of our current miseries- the aliens. Those evil beings who, descending from on high, spread plague and destruction among us. A cosmic pathogen that ragged through the peoples of the Earth, killing indiscriminately. Then satisfied by the death that they had wrought the returned to their great ships and fled. And I curse them, curse them with every fibre of my being for what they have done to us. Thank you.”
And with that, the General vanished back into his room, slamming the door behind him. There were murmurs of praise from the old people who had been with the General since before the aliens, but mostly chewing sounds as people ate.
Christina became a part of the Museum’s basement community. Helping scavenge for food, exploring the empty skyscrapers, and listening to the General go on about life before the aliens. And falling into some semblance of a normal day to day routine.
“Could you tell me something about the aliens?” Christina asked George as they picked through the remains of the Standard Oil building.
George sat down at a crumbling board table. “What do you want to know?”
“What did they look like? Everybody’s always so vague when they talk about them that I can never picture what they looked like.”
“Well, the one I saw was a green thing with many mouths and many eyes. A writhing mass of flesh and saliva,” said George. “I was walking home from school when I saw it, God, I would’ve been about your age. There was a flash of purple fire and it materialized in front of me.”
“Then what happened?”
“Nothing really. It just kind of grunted at me for a bit, like it was trying to say something important, then disappeared. I guess that was enough time for whatever disease it was carrying to infect me. I was sick for what felt like years and when I finally got better everything was like this,” George gestured at the ruined boardroom. “Why so curious about aliens all of a sudden?”
“I talked to one the other day.”
“You what!” George exclaimed with some urgency.
“Not talked, exactly. I was exploring Central Park the other day when a beam of purple light surrounded me. It felt like something or someone was staring into my very soul. And then it was gone.”
George’s blood ran cold. “You should tell the General about this.”
“Because that means they might be coming back. And that scares me. It scares me a lot.”
And they made their way out of the Standard Oil building back to the Museum; George trying not to break into a run on the long walk back. They descended into the basement with possibility hanging heavy in the air. The basement was mostly empty as everybody was out looking for food. George knocked on the General’s door. It opened a crack and a bloodshot eye peered out at them.
“Yes?” asked the General.
“Sir,” said George. “My friend here told me something very serious just now. About the aliens.”
“What is it?” said the General.
Christina hesitated a moment. “Well–”
“You may address me as either General or Sir, child, but not Well. Do I look like a body of water to you?”
“Um,” said Christina.
“It’s very colloquial, is all,” said the General. “Proper leaders remain formal at all times.”
“Ok, Sir,” said Christina. “I think I saw the aliens. What do you think of that?”
The General was silent. “I must consider this.”
With that, the General slammed the door in their faces. George and Christina were quiet.
“Now what?” asked Christina.
“I don’t know,” said George. “If they come back… I don’t know.”
The General was late handing out that night’s rations. And when he did, he let everyone eat without first treating them to a lecture. He stood in his doorway, watching everybody eat, like a guardian angel or an anxious parent or what have you. And when everyone had finished, he motioned for silence and started speaking:
“I’ve tried to give you a good life. I have. Despite the aliens. Despite the plague they caused. Despite there being no food. Despite there being no point to any of this. I tried. And today, I failed.”
There were surprised gasps from the older people and amused glances from everybody else- tonight’s entertainment was going to be different. But George felt a sinking feeling in his stomach.
“Quiet please, children. Thank you. I’ve felt in my gut for some time now that the aliens are returning. And just this morning, a trusted and confidential source confirmed it. I’m not the man I was before. And I can’t protect you from them any longer. But I can be merciful. And spare you the pain those bastards will inevitably bring with them. Which is why I laced the rations with cyanide. I, myself, consumed a dose earlier. We will all be safe within the hour. Questions?”
George stood up. “Yeah, I have a question.”
“What the fuck?”
Worried murmurs went through the room, and the General looked confused. “I understand if you’re upset, but–”
“I’m upset?” exclaimed George. “Me, upset? About being poisoned?”
“The aliens are coming back! You know what happened last time!”
Before George could answer, Christina stood up. She was red in the face and had her hand on her throat. That was when the coughing started- violent spams that ran through her body. And she fell to the floor. And the fear set in as more people started coughing and falling and dying. The General collapsed, a contented look on his face.
George felt the poison coursing through his system, and a sudden feeling of claustrophobia came over him. If he was to die so be it, but it wouldn’t be in some basement no matter how nice it might be. He fled upstairs and collapsed on the ground outside the Museum. As consciousness slipped away from him, his last thought was spent wondering why everything was purple. It’s not meant to be purple, is it? But it doesn’t really matter what colour things are anymore.
For a time, George experienced the complete negation of all perspective, emotion, and identity.
And then he was alive again.
A well-dressed, clean-shaven man was smiling down at him. Above, the hull of a great ship stretched from horizon to horizon; a machine sky that occasionally shot purple lightening at the Earth.
“Hi,” said the man excitedly. “I’m Al!”
“Are you an alien, Al?” asked George.
“Yup!” said Al, the alien.
“Who thought Al was a good name for an alien?”
Al looked hurt. “I picked this name myself! We studied your culture a lot since our last visit, learning your language, how you act, how you talk. I wanted to sound familiar, so I became Al. Say hello to my little friend!”
“But you’re a person, aren’t you? You look like one. And why am I alive?”
“We’ve been scanning you humans for a while now, so we could update our biology. So, we could actually talk to you. And you’re alive because I gave you the cure,” Al held up something that looked like a white glow stick. “This: THE CURE FOR ALL PHYSICAL AILMENTS AND DISEASES UP TO AND INCLUDING DEATH.”
“You guys have one of those?”
“Yup! It’s really very handy. Back home, nobody dies unless they want to. It was the reason we came here in the first place- to share it with the universe. But the last time we used it on a human, it ended up backfiring and creating the plague.”
“Yeah, that sucked.”
“We feel terrible about it!” protested Al. “We spent the last, I don’t know how many years, trying to undo it. We even learnt your languages and everything! I just wish there were more dead people around so I could show you how it works.”
“You’re in luck, my friend, there’s just been a mass murder downstairs.”
Al looked genuinely excited. “Goodie!”
And Al went bounding inside the Museum to make everybody alive again. And all George could do was lie where he was on the sidewalk and laugh. Laugh hard enough to keep the tears away.
Harman studies Psychology at the University of Newcastle, Australia. His short fiction has previously appeared, or is forthcoming, in numerous magazines including Flame Tree Press Newsletter, After Dinner Conversation, and Cosmic Horror Monthly.