This is a short sci-fi story I conceived back in my sophomore year of college. The idea came to me as I was sitting in my English 103 class on American literature. In a way, you could say the class inspired me to put my own twist on classic mid-20th century Americana. Like Maple Street (or the town of Springfield where the Simpson family resides), Pleaksville could exist anywhere in the United States. In another way, you could say that given its setting, premise, themes and casual name drops, Shooting Stars is practically a forerunner to In My Hand, a distant relative with alien DNA, shall we say? It’s gone through a few iterations over the intervening years and has the privilege of boasting that it has been rejected by nearly every major science fiction and fantasy magazine out there. So here it is, a rejected science fiction tale set amidst the same hyperrealistic historical setting and paranoia of In My Hand. Whether you like it or not is beyond my control and just keep in mind that your liking it or not is just another infinitesimal blip on the radar of a vast, unloving and mysterious vacuum known simply as the cosmos.
-JH Weiss (brought to you in part by H.P. Lovecraft)
The legs of the late Dorothy Thompson stuck out from beneath the craft, striking a morbid resemblance to the Wicked Witch of the East.
As he scribbled on his notepad, Detective Lawrence Tribbett half expected a green sorceress to pop out from under the metallic saucer in search of stolen ruby slippers. While an amusing thought, Tribbett only frowned at the devastating scene before him. Standing at the base of the faintly smoking crater, he wondered how his job had come to this.
For ten years, he had worked the Pleaksville homicide beat, ten eventful years of catching murderers and psychopaths. There were department rumors that he was next in line for Chief of Police. Or at least those were the rumors until the shooting stars had started to fall. Now the government was running the show and putting maniacs away was the last priority on its list.
Beside the detective stood Kenneth Thompson and his son, Max, tear tracks staining their weary faces. The summer air in the backyard was filled with three distinct noises: the scratching of Tribbett’s pen on his spiral bound notepad, the melodious chirping of crickets, and the soft knocking from within the saucer. Like a solider trapped inside a burning tank.
Once satisfied with the notes he had taken for his eventual report, Tribbett put away the pad and pen into the pocket of his tweed suit jacket that was beginning to become drenched with sweat from the evening humidity. Loosening his paisley tie and smoothing the brim of his fedora, he turned to face the remaining members of the Thompson family.
“Ken, I’m so sorry. You too, Max. Dorothy was a good woman. She didn’t deserve to leave us like this.”
Kenneth’s response was more frog-like than human. Gasping for air, he croaked,
“Sh—She was just going to the garden. Her tomatoes had come in. She only wanted to make sure the rabbits weren’t ruining them. We had no idea that this could happen. We didn’t expect that…” His fingers covered his face as he broke into a fresh fit of sobs. Salty droplets fell to the parched earth and a small platoon of ants scattered to avoid the oncoming flood, clambering over one another in a desperate attempt to descend into the depths of their hill before they too were drowned in Kenneth Thompson’s sorrow. Tribbett didn’t want to know what had contributed to the patch of red around Dorothy’s legs, although he hoped it was her squashed tomatoes.
Max, glassy eyed, clung to his father, trying to maintain a countenance of emotional solidity. Tribbett placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder and gave him a weak smile. It was all he could do for the poor boy at the moment.
“If there’s anything that Nancy and I can do for you two, please don’t be afraid to ask. Day or night, we’re here to help.” Max returned the gesture with a halfhearted nod. For a moment, they all listened to the crickets, the maestros of summer. Then, with a great effort, Tribbett raised his head and motioned toward the small group of military police waiting near the side of the house. They had arrived shortly after him and stood around smoking and cracking jokes while he made notes for his report and consoled the father and son.
He now realized how young these MPs were as they trotted over to the crash site in their green uniforms and black helmets with the white letters that spelled out US Military Police across the front. The letters on their helmet must have been immaculate once, Tribbett assumed, but now they were faded in places and smudged with soot.
They’d have been fighting in some jungle an ocean away at this very moment if the appearance of the crashing saucers hadn’t made the growing conflict obsolete. Now, every abled-bodied eighteen-year-old in the country was being drafted to fight a very different enemy.
The leader of the group—he had introduced himself as Private Kornhauser–slowly made his way into the crater, taking extra caution to avoid Dorothy’s protruding legs, which were horribly bent and misshapen, her house slippers still on her crushed and blackened appendages.
Crowbar in hand, Kornhauser began the process of dislodging the ship’s hatch, a sizable rectangle outlined by deep indentations in the craft’s smooth surface. After a few minutes of grunting, he had succeeded in prying back the door, revealing a large gaping void into the bowels of the still steaming vessel. The metallic knocking was now replaced with faint scuttling sounds, vaguely reminiscent of a crab exploring the limits of its tank.
Kornhauser crawled out of the crater and back into the yard, sweating. He flung the crowbar to the ground and its clang! was muffled by the cushion of well-tended, albeit parched grass as the next solider stepped forward, a small tank of flammable liquid mounted on his back. In an instant, the tranquility of the July evening was broken.
The steady stream of flames that traveled into the interior of the saucer illuminated the yard, casting monstrous shadows across the grass and on the faces of, the detective, the Thompsons and young military policemen. The cricket song was replaced by the piercing screams of the creature inside the ship, which had become a metal oven, a fiery grave. The detective had heard it a dozen times before, but the sound was still unbearable. It never got easier and his stomach squirmed as if the screeches were dislodging his internal organs from their squishy bodily lining.
He tightly shut his eyes, trying to somehow shut out the Martian’s (or at least that’s what the governments of the world were calling them) shrieks of agony. He thought of wife, Nancy, and daughter, Claire. He thought of the recently announced American-Soviet pact and how the world’s greatest powers had stopped splitting the atom in favor of stopping an invasion from outer space. How long before the truce was broken? ‘Maybe once the shooting stars stopped falling,’ he thought.
‘Once the “alien menace” had been eliminated and our problems aren’t so common anymore…’
Detective Tribbett opened his eyes. At some point they must have gone inside because neither Kenneth nor Max stood in the yard anymore. Small patches of fire were licking at the sides of the crater and ship as a third MP began to smother them with white foam from a bright red extinguisher. The cries of the “Martian” had ceased and the sounds of summer had returned. The earth could now continue its usual business once the foreign entity had been eradicated. Finished with their handiwork, the army men approached the detective and saluted. Kornhauser put down his hand and spoke,
“Detective Tribbett. General Baxter requests that you file the report of tonight’s events and have it on his desk first thing tomorrow morning. A cleanup crew will be along shortly to remove the remains”
Tribbett nodded his acknowledgement, being sure not to look at the blackened curls that had been Dorothy’s legs, and the soldiers marched off in the direction of their truck, which was parked out front. The detective watched them drive off into the night before slowly returning to his own car, a beat up Mercury Monterey. On the radio, Senator McCarthy was rambling on about Martians in the State Department.
“We must not be intimidated by these otherworldly strangers who seek to inflict their own nefarious intentions upon this planet. I say we—the human race–were here first and it’s going to stay that way. As Americans and as human beings, we must stand together to defeat the alien menace that stands to eradicate our way of life that has taken thousands of years to build. Only then shall we be able to…”
Tribbett turned the radio dial, smiling. He could have sworn that the very same speech had mentioned Communists only last year. It was a wonder how people could still take the Ohioan seriously.
A slow, but upbeat folk ballad was playing on the current station. Some young fellow named Diller or some such who—with a gaggle of other youths–had risen up to call for the equality of all species, no matter what planet they hailed from.
“… And don’t criticize what you don’t understand,” drawled Dylan as a harmonica hummed in the background. “These Martians are really worth saving. So you better stop killing or the space men they’ll be invading!”
As he pulled away from the Thompson household, the detective glimpsed another flying saucer plummeting to earth, silhouetted against a shining yellow moon. Which detective would be responding now? Perkins? Feldman? Spade? Whenever he saw one, Lawrence Tribbett wondered where these space travelers came from, who they were, and what they wanted if, in fact, they wanted anything.
Why could not safely land their ships? Were they from Mars or some far away galaxy from which the dying light of stars had originated? Were they benevolent beings that wished to share the secrets of the universe with mankind or were they cruel things bent on colonization and destruction?
Perhaps there was a justification for the radical McCarthy policies that had passed through Congress and across world with very little protest. Terror of the unknown was all it really took to suppress the world’s greatest minds: scientists and astrologists who wanted to “make contact” as they were so often calling for on the television and radio.
We always need to be afraid of something, I suppose, said Tribbett to himself as he pulled into his own driveway and saw Nancy in the kitchen holding a casserole dish by the oven. Claire was at the kitchen table, finishing her homework. It was a simple little scene that Lawrence knew well, but if there was anything the exhausted Pleaksville homicide detective who now reported on flying saucers for a living understood for certain about the grand scheme of things, it was that Man, in all of his infinite curiosity, could only watch the shooting stars all summer long.