Moving the Antenna

It was early evening; a humid heat hung in the air, as if the heat itself was resting from its efforts beneath the relentless gaze of the sun. Gary had gotten pizza and a quart bottle of beer, which he brought back and consumed in silence in his room. “Taxi Driver” scenarios were playing themselves out in his mind (though he was unarmed), and he was simply too tense to find comfort in background TV noise. He wanted to wait until at least the point in time when a dinner guest might already be inside, should he be coming for dinner. Early departure or late arrival — there wasn’t much he could do about that without risking missing the goal. Night or evening were preferred times, according to the society.

“There are reports,” said the last FAQ, “that we find unsubstantiated and improbable that the military industrial complex has not only documented these visitations but may have already devised a program to capture contacts, in order to try to replicate the technology. It is said, further, that the program operates in the utmost secret and has a stake in limiting exposure.” Limiting exposure? “We find it certainly not beyond belief that the government would operate in this fashion, but we believe two things: it is too late to put this genie back in the bottle; and it is unlikely that the government will recognize the significance of something so devoid of commercial and political heft, before it is too late for them to control it.”

With that challenge and final dramatic irony, the society went silent. Gary was alternately adrenalized and soothed by these words, in a cycle that he finally recognized in his daydreaming, and put an end to. He got up, took his equipment and headed out to the car. There was a wide variety of cars, trucks and motorcycles in the lot now — a testament to the hive. No one was visible in the many rooms with lights on, nor standing in the light to be outlined. The scene felt dark, noisy and cramped, and an overheated odor hung in the air, but there was no noir connection among the wanderers gathered here, nothing to make it seem like more than simply an unpleasant corner that you’d rather avoid if you had half a choice.

Gary got in his car with his device and pulled out and into the street. He put the radio on and listened to some hip-hop he couldn’t understand, then shut it off abruptly. He saw Alice’s building loom out of the passing suburban scenery and went past and turned into the side street. He turned around and parked beneath her bedroom window, some 30 feet from the glass. He was pretty confident that she wouldn’t open that window, but he was about to do much more that could easily be construed as stalking. Before he got out of the car, he fired up his device for the first time — bad quality control practices, but he lucked out. His compass jumped around like it was supposed to, and the induced current made a little light shine in a separate test circuit he built. He put the device in a large brown paper bag and made sure it was on.

He exited his car and walked with a spring in his gait — emulating, he thought, the need to get somewhere quickly — almost to the front door. There, he imitated surprise that the door wasn’t buzzing or wasn’t open, and he went back out to the sidewalk, more or less in the middle of the building, and looked up as if he hoped to see his host or hostess looking apologetically out the window. He repeated his performance once, twice, thrice, each time extending the time spent looking up, until finally the most he did was pace up and down the block, still looking up expectantly. One time he was at the opposite end of the block when someone came strolling out and he missed his chance. Another time, a young woman eyed him suspiciously as she came around the corner and went to the front door, and he kept his distance. Finally, a pizza delivery car drove up and when the driver was buzzed in, Gary was there with his large grocery bag to follow him in.

So far, so good, he thought. But it didn’t seem like a brilliant plan when he stood in the overlit lobby, with the memory of Alice flooding through his mind, and when her disappointed and shocked face appeared to him on surfaces everywhere.

He walked up the stairs and headed straight for her door. He paused for a just moment there, fully expecting it to open and his heart to stop with the shock. Motionless, he directed his better ear at the door. He heard nothing. Maybe something muffled, but more likely it was some movement in the apartment above. No indication of anything. He gave up and went down the hallway; here’s where the plan became critical. He walked right up to the door at the end of the hall. It had a red bar and sign labeled “Emergency Exit Only.” Gary knew that some people used this door to go out to the cars parked to the rear. The building association occasionally had the emergency door alarm reset, and for a few days the building would be inundated with electronic screams in the hall and cricket alarms in every condo, until someone disconnected the door alarm again. Gary was betting the whole enchilada that that was still the case. He pushed the bar. No buzz, but he half expected after two seconds to feel the shrill tone fill his ears. Nothing again. He picked up his bag and went into the stairwell, careful not to let the door close.

It was dusky dark, which suited him. He placed a metal shim and let the door close on it. He knew Alice would never leave through this stairwell, but Reggie was a wildcard. Anyone else, he was prepared to head down the stairs and out as if he had come from the third floor, leaving his antenna behind if necessary; he was no good to himself or anyone else behind bars. Maybe, he thought, he would be forced to punch Reggie in the stomach and toss him headlong down the stairs. That remained to be seen.

He reached into the bag and checked it with his external circuit. He had wanted to bring his frequency checker, but it seemed safer to concentrate his resources on this device. “Interestingly,” the FAQ’s author had observed, “it is possible to move the signal from one location to another by the careful transportation of the active antenna.” Gary hoped that this was true. But he had a back-up plan if it proved to be impossible to capture the signal or move it. He would pound on Alice’s door until she responded, and then he would explain the danger — through the door if necessary — and they would gather up Andrew and some essentials, get into his car (hers would be too dangerous) and drive straight to the airport. They would feint by buying tickets for later that day, to Banff or Anchorage or Nova Scotia or wherever. Then they would get right back into his car and head straight for the border (Canadian or Mexican).

The alien conspiracists were the only direct source he had for trying to understand the danger that Alice and he were in. “Men in black” were no joke in the literature, and he had gleaned what he could of their methods: showing up immediately after contact, or when suppressed memories of abduction began to resurface; large dark SUVs with impenetrable windows; dark-suited, featureless gentlemen quietly going about the business of enforcing silence and disappearing. That enforcement never escalated to murder in the conspiracy literature, but it was a disjointed and frankly unbelievable set of story conventions. “You know, without their communicating anything in words, that if you break the agreement to be silent about what you have experienced that they will simply make you disappear — erase your life, disabuse your family and friends of trying to find you, and make you regret that decision for all your born days, if not for all eternity. They have that look.” So one particularly outspoken alienist chronicler — who, ironically, was still awaiting their return.

Gary cursed having forgotten his watch. Time dragged absolutely in that stuffy, dank stairwell, with nothing but rehashed visions of self-sacrifice and sudden kung fu prowess and bumbling MIBs, and the occasional muffled sound from who knows where in the building and who knows why. He had to listen, and listening into silence is like leaning your head too hard against a blunt but extruding surface, a painful experience that promises to grow ever more so. After five counted-out minutes, he realized the hopelessness of the situation. He would have to close his eyes and breathe deeply and simply wait. He pretended to be in his bed, unable to sleep but so late at night that he couldn’t justify getting up. Just rest the body muscles, if the brain muscle won’t.

He had no idea how long he had been in that hallway when he heard a door open in the hallway, and the sound of footsteps coming toward the stairwell. He jumped up, but instead of going downstairs to escape, he ran up the half- staircase to the landing and stood still. The door was violently pushed open and the shim fell, but the person thankfully did not pay attention and continued down the stairs. It was a young man, in a hurry by the measure of his leaping stairs — or maybe it was simply his habit. He had landed on the first floor by the time the second floor door slipped shut, but Gary had not moved. He was stuck motionless. The young man hit the emergency release and the outside door opened with a bang. No alarm.

Gary considered himself lucky and hoped two things: that was the end of the interruptions and he didn’t need to get into the hallway to capture the signal. Neither seemed very good odds. What to do? He weighed the relative danger of trying to get back in and trying to avoid detection here. The risks of someone sweeping down from the third floor made him feel all too exposed. Gary remembered quite well a seductively self-assured middle-aged woman anthropologist and the distribution-requirement class she offered. She convinced him one day that we are no more than tribal folk, sensitive to any other human’s proximity of less than a few thousand feet, but that the permission to pass is given so repeatedly and naturally, a social contract that we all undergo, that we forget how strongly and viscerally we would react when someone doesn’t belong in our vision of our space. He knew he would face the same kind of judging eyes at this hour, no matter if he sat in his car or in front of the building. Probably no one would do anything, but every potential witness was also a link back to Alice and that profound sense of condemnation that he saw looming above her head.

Of course, he should have just called her. “But she had said” — that was just cowardice, he realized, with the sudden emergence of a sweat. The stairwell seemed to heat up with this realization of guilt. He could not escape the feeling of having failed himself with this plan that put him so close to Alice without her permission, risking every last shred of a relationship to her. Maybe she would visit him, when visiting her ex-husband in state prison, but the irony gave him scant comfort. Probably she would insist on a federal prison, to get him away from her, and he’d spend a couple years in Leavenworth prison, losing every bit of whatever innocence he could still muster.

After another ten minutes or so, his heart began to relax, his endocrine system was regulating itself a tad better. Maybe he should have called her, but then he risked the absolute end; this way, he had a chance to make himself essential again. If the MIBs came, he’d be more than essential, too, even if there was little he could do. Right now, though, he had the sense that the most likely scenario would be utter silence, and he would skulk out of the building, never to return. Sacrifice seemed to be the least likely possibility in that expanse of eventless minutes.