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Confessions of a Pod Person

by Chuck McKenzie

I am out in the front garden, watering the hedge, when Jim Taylor comes walking by, and the part of Us that is Chuck McKenzie remembers to wave and say hi.

Jim stops and leans on the front gate – just like the real Jim Taylor would have done – and comments on how the hedge is coming along nicely. I nod and say yes, it certainly is. Jim says, it must be all the good weather we’ve been having. I agree, but note that the forecast is predicting rain. Ah well, says Jim, rain’s as good for the garden as sun. So why does it rain on the footpath? I ask, and we both laugh. As usual.

We have had this conversation – or variations of it – innumerable times before. It is important that we have done so and continue to do so, because the real Jim Taylor and Chuck McKenzie had these sorts of conversations on a regular basis – and with the invasion over it is more important now than ever before that the few of Us remaining continue to blend in.

“Chuck?”

Jim and I turn towards the house. Megan is standing on the porch, smiling, her hand placed carefully against the doorframe. She is wearing a light cotton dress that moves slightly with the breeze. She is very beautiful –

I frown. The fact that she is beautiful should not have occurred to me, since it is irrelevant to Our survival. I become a little concerned about this – or at least, I remember how concern would have felt to Chuck. This sort of thing has been occurring more and more frequently these past few months. Emotive responses. And this, of course, is impossible.

“Chuck?” she calls.

I call back: yes, I’m here.

“Is that Jim with you? Hi Jim!”

Jim smiles, and remarks that there is no fooling her. He asks her how she is doing.

She shrugs. “Yeah, not bad. Listen, I’m sorry to break up the party, Jim, but I need Chuck to come and help me get dinner ready.”

Be right there, I say. Megan nods, and carefully makes her way back inside. I turn to Jim. Duty calls, I say. Is that what you call her? he says. And we laugh. I turn off the tap, then head towards the house, half-turning to wave goodbye to Jim. He waves back. OK Chuck, he says, I’ll see you later. Only if I don’t see you first, I say. And laugh.

Jim stops dead in his tracks and fixes me with a blank stare. I can read that look clearly. It says: What the hell was that?

I cannot answer. That joke was … an impossibility. Chuck McKenzie never made that joke. It is something new. Where did it come from?

Jim is still looking at me, so I quickly mention that I might go down to the local bar a little later on. Back to the regular routine. Will he be there? Jim Taylor’s smiling face returns. Except for the eyes, of course. While all Replacements retain a memory of what emotion is, Our ‘emotive responses’ are just an act. True emotion never touches Our eyes. Family members tend to notice this. They begin to suspect, which would normally have been a problem easily fixed with Replacements of Our own for those families, except the Pods left too soon. Most of Us in this situation are now living alone – separated, divorced, or with institutionalised spouses. A couple of Us still live with Our UnReplaced families, but relations are tense.

I am very lucky to have someone like Megan.

Jim smiles warmly, his eyes blank. I’ll see you at the bar then, he says, and walks off. I watch him go, feeling unaccountably disturbed, then go into the house to help prepare dinner.

* * *

When dinner is over, and I have done the washing up, and switched on the radio for Megan, I retreat to my study to do some writing. I sit before the computer, fingers tapping lightly over the keyboard, pouring out a dry catalogue of the day’s events. Chuck used to do this during bouts of writers’ block: to keep his fingers agile, he would say. But now it is the only sort of writing I am capable of. Like actors, We take on the appearance, mannerisms and memories of those We Replace. Unlike actors, We can work only with the material provided. There is no improvising. It is a survival strategy which has served Us well for countless millennia. To go beyond the bounds of what is known to be the accepted behaviour of those We Replace would surely draw attention, and invite discovery. Everything We do is a routine composed entirely of snippets of someone else’s life, re-enacted in a random order to give the impression of newness.

There is a tentative knock, and Megan appears in the doorway. “How’s it coming along?”

Not so great, I say. Writers’ block. Just knocking out gibberish.

This was Chuck’s standard reply during periods of creative frustration, but I know the response is beginning to wear thin. Chuck McKenzie has not done any real writing for the last three years: not since that night when Megan went to stay with her mother, and Chuck fell asleep on the couch downstairs, next to the open window.

Megan nods understandingly, but I sense her worry. Money has not been an issue before. Three bestsellers prior to Replacement have provided well. But the royalties will not keep coming in forever. Chuck needs to produce some new work soon, or find an alternate line of work. Of course, the latter is not an option – writing is all Chuck knew, is all I know. And my inability to write anything original puts me in the most awkward position of any of Us. As a baker, or an accountant, or a mechanic, I could have effortlessly maintained the pretence, not needing to know or do anything new. A writer, however, must produce new, fresh, original work to survive. Creativity. Imagination. Initiative. And We have none of these.

I sigh, and ask Megan if she would mind me ducking out to the bar for an hour or so to have a few drinks with the boys.

She dazzles me with a smile. “Sure, hon. I’ll be fine.”

Are you sure? I ask. Can I get you anything before I go?

She waves me away. “I’m not an invalid. I’ll be fine. Say hi to guys for me.”

I assure her that I’ll do just that, then I grab my coat and wander down the road.

* * *

The sky is very clear tonight, and the stars are just beginning to appear. Chuck would have stopped to appreciate them, so I do, and wonder where the Pods are now.

I remember the night We stood in the field at the outskirts of town, united in Our pursuit of the town doctor, who had resisted Our efforts to Replace him. He had flooded the field with petrol, igniting the liquid as we closed in. The Pods responded instinctively, twisting free of the soil and floating up into the sky. Earth had proven itself too hostile. Maybe the next thousand worlds will also be too hostile. Just one suitable world will do, where conditions allow the Pods to settle and grow. I remember standing with the Others, looking up at the sky. Then we all turned and went back to our homes. There was nothing else to do. The doctor was not harmed. There was no point in retribution. The invasion had failed, and We who were left had no choice but to go back to Our routines. The whole point of Our mode of existence is to survive wherever We are able. The doctor still has a practice in town. Like Us, he maintains the pretence that all is normal. How could he do otherwise? Who would believe his story?

And besides, he knows that all he has to do is wait.

We are not perfect replicas. We will produce no children, and all of Us will be dead within the next two years. Again, this is Our accepted mode of existence. It has always been this way. We live, we die, we cultivate the Pods, which carry Us on to other worlds. Our race goes on.

And yet, recently, I have been having … concerns. Chuck McKenzie was only thirty when I Replaced him. He might have lived to the age of seventy, or longer. And I have begun to think – to feel – that a five-year lifespan is … not enough.

It is impossible, of course, for me to think such things. Such thoughts could only have come from Chuck’s own memory.

But I have no recollection of Chuck ever considering the issue of his own mortality.

* * *

I enter the bar and pause, pretending to look around for the Others. Of course, I know exactly where They will be – over in the corner booth by the potted palm. Jim Taylor, Steve Brown, Rick Collins and Alan Hargreaves. I peer into the gloom, as if trying to make sure it is really them. Jim waves cheerily at me. I walk over, sit down next to Alan, and we all exchange pleasantries.

We took the liberty of ordering you a beer, says Steve.

Cheers, I say, the next round’s mine.

Rick was just about to tell us a joke, says Alan. Go on Rick.

So Rick tells the joke about the nun and the banana, while we all pretend to hear it for the first time – except for Alan, who nods and says, I’ve heard this one, but lets Rick finish anyway. We all laugh dutifully as Steve repeats the punch line.

A few UnReplaced people sitting at nearby tables give Us wary looks. Many of the townsfolk know that something is not right about Us. Most of them do not truly suspect what We are, but they know We are not who We pretend to be. Recently, I have been wondering if there is any point in continuing the pretence. But then, I can see how the truth might push some of these people over the edge.

Tim Stratton, one of the bar attendants, comes to the table bearing five schooners of beer on a tray. He carefully puts the tray down and lets Us take our drinks.

“That’ll be ten bucks,” he says.

Jim pays. Tim does not make eye contact. He is obviously nervous, but conducts himself as normally as possible. It occurs to me that human beings are quite adaptable in their own way, coping with extreme situations simply by sticking to their regular routines, drawing comfort from that sense of normality.

Maybe we are not so different after all, Us and them.

I ask Tim how he is doing. He looks up, startled.

“OK, I guess,” he mutters.

The Others give me a look. I ignore them, and – insanely – place my hand on Tim’s forearm. Tim, I say, everything’s OK. I mean that. There’s no need to be afraid –

Whoa! interrupts Rick. Maybe you guys should get a room!

The Others laugh uproariously, Their eyes untouched by humour and black as tar.

Tim shakes his arm free and staggers back a few paces. Taking a deep breath, he whispers loudly, “I know what you are.”

Jim leans forward. Do you? he says, coldly.

Tim stumbles away, his face grey.

I glare at the Others. What did you do that for? I ask furiously. They stop laughing, faces blank. None of Us get mad anymore, not even in pretence, so my outburst takes Them by surprise. After a moment Jim asks, what the hell’s wrong with you?

What’s wrong with me? I ask. What the hell’s wrong with you? It might help if people weren’t scared of Us!

The Others are too astonished to answer. I fume silently, taking a big swig of beer. The Others exchange looks.

You know, says Jim eventually, Chuck was telling me a new joke today. A new joke.

Alan looks around to ensure that nobody is listening in, then pushes his face towards mine. What’s going on? he asks.

I don’t know, I say. I just feel –

Feel? asks Jim, blankly. There is a long silence.

Something odd, I say, gazing into my beer. I’m having… episodes. As though I can actually feel the emotion. Have any of you?

I look up, and can see from their expressions that they have not.

The thing is, I say, these aren’t Chuck’s memories. These emotive responses aren’t his.

The Others say nothing.

I’m … changing, I say.

The Others exchange another look. Jim leans forward. The expression on his face is pained, as though the act of questioning my statement causes him physical discomfort. How? he asks.

The answer has been fermenting at the back of my mind for some time now, and I have been doing my best to ignore it. But it is as if Jim’s question has thrown a switch, and the words are out of my mouth before I can stop them.

I think I’m evolving, I say.

Steve switches back into Steve mode, smirks and stands. I’m outta here, he says, and gives me a contemptuous look. You’re nuts, buddy! He stalks out of the pub. This, at least, is part of the regular routine. Steve always was an aggressive drunk. Rick goes with him, casting anxious glances back at us as he leaves.

Alan and Jim remain, staring at me. I stare back. If the invasion had not failed, if the entire town had been Replaced, these guys would be content to dispense with the act altogether. With no one left to threaten Their survival, the routines would cease to be useful. No work would be done, nothing would be cleaned, or maintained, or rebuilt. The roads would fall into disrepair, isolating the town from the outside world. The Replacements would simply exist – eating, sleeping and excreting – until They died, leaving behind a ghost town. The thought makes me … angry.

Evolving, says Alan, flatly.

Well? I say, defensively. We’re at the pinnacle of evolution, universally. We’ve evolved to that level in order to survive. So if an invasion fails – if the option to leave doesn’t exist for those who’ve already become Replacements – well, who’s to say we couldn’t individually evolve further in order to survive?

Jim leans forward again. I say, he says, because it’s never happened before. Ever.

I say, well, absence of proof isn’t proof of absence, and Jim gives me another blank look because that is not something that Chuck would ever have said. Shaking my head in frustration, I drain my glass and stand. I dig a few crumpled notes from my pocket, and toss them on the table. That should cover the next round, I say. Jim starts to speak, but I cut him off, saying that I want to get back home to my wife. And I actually mean it.

Jim must see something in my face that conveys this, because he sits back, looking almost frightened. Something passes between Us. Somehow, We know that this routine is over. We will not be drinking together again. Not like this, anyway – the whole gang together. That was Chuck’s thing. But somehow, impossibly, I am no longer that person. No longer the person I Replaced.

I am … me.

Of course, the original Chuck McKenzie remains; thirty years of memory providing a foundation for the new me to build upon, and to fall back upon when necessary. I do that now, nodding amiably to Jim and Alan as I head towards the door. Cheers guys, I say, loud enough for those sitting nearby to hear. I’ll catch you later.

It is a comparatively small lie, all things considered.

* * *

Just me, I say as I arrive home. Getting no response, I stick my head around the living room doorway and see Megan curled up on the couch, asleep. I tiptoe across the room and turn off the radio, careful not to disturb her, then go to my study. I switch on the computer, sit back in my chair and stare at the screen, at the diary I was working on earlier. I stare at it for a very long time, thinking about what has occurred tonight.

Part of me is … relieved, I suppose. At least, I remember relief feeling like this. Everything is out in the open – amongst Us, at least – and I have finally been able to rationalize what is happening to me. But a knot of tension remains in my stomach. I have a major decision to make: to go on as before, operating safely as an automaton for the duration of a short, short life; or, to put what little future remains to me in my own hands. To show initiative.

Either direction is a frightening prospect.

I continue to stare frustratedly at the screen. One idea. Just one new idea. That is all I need. One lousy idea for a book…

Nothing.

For the first time in my life, I feel like crying. I look at the diary – dry, pointless words on the screen. I bury my face in my hands. I cannot do it. Creativity. I just do not have it. And yet, that joke I told Jim earlier – that had to come from somewhere. I stare at the screen again, trying to find a story amongst the lines of meaningless drivel.

Still nothing.

I look at the bookshelf against the far wall, at Chuck’s collection of books. A jumble of hardbacks and paperbacks, science fiction and action bestsellers, scientific references, writing textbooks and biographies. Chuck had a fondness for biographies, and there is an eclectic mix of them on the shelf. Pop stars, politicians, sporting celebrities and business figures: their lives laid out in prose, dry facts presented in a style approximating fiction…

I look back at the screen, thinking. After a moment, I move the cursor and double-click the very first file comprising my diary of the last three years. I lean forward, examining the old words intently. The naked truth, completely ungarnished. And dangerous. If anyone from outside town was to recognize the names of people and places mentioned here…

I sigh. Too dangerous.

Unless…

If I were to alter this sequence of events, change these names… It would not be a fabrication, exactly. More … restructuring the truth. To make it more palatable to a reader. Almost automatically, my fingers begin flickering across the keyboard.

“Chuck?”

I turn. Megan is standing in the doorway, her eyes heavy with sleep. Right here, I say.

“I didn’t hear you come in,” she says. “You coming to bed?”

Soon, I say.

“Finishing up that gibberish you were working on?”

No, I say, and hesitate for a moment. I’m … working on a new book.

“Really?”

Yes, I say. Just came to me today. It’s about aliens who invade a small town. The first ones to arrive take over the bodies of the townsfolk, then the invasion fails, and the rest of the story is about what happens to the aliens who are left behind.

She makes a face. “Sounds creepy. Horror story? Or science fiction?”

I pause, considering carefully. No, I say. I actually thought of it as a romance novel. Sort of.

She nods, but looks a little confused.

I think I’ll give Sarah Kernot a call tomorrow, I say; see if I can sell this.

Megan looks surprised, but pleased. Sarah is Chuck’s agent, to whom he hasn’t spoken in three years. Megan realizes that if I’m intending to call Sarah, I really must believe I’m working on something solid. “Really?” she says. “That’s excellent!”

Just give me fifteen more minutes on this, and I’ll come to bed, I say.

She smiles. “Okay. Fifteen minutes.”

Do you need a hand getting upstairs? I ask.

“No,” she says. “I’ll be fine.” She turns away, feeling for the handrail that runs along the hallway and up the stairwell.

“I love you,” I say. And mean it.

She pauses, then turns back to face me. Her sightless eyes fix upon a spot on the wall just above my head. “I love you too,” she replies softly, then adds, “come to bed soon, and I’ll show you how much.”

I watch her go, then turn back to the computer. I look at the words on the screen. There is some good stuff there – stuff I can work with.

Tomorrow.

I reach out and turn off the computer. Chuck McKenzie, in the grip of inspiration, would have carried on working into the small hours of the morning. But I am not Chuck McKenzie. Nor am I any longer a mere facsimile. I have become something more. What happens to me now is largely up to me. My life, my decisions.

Yes, I think. The story can definitely wait until tomorrow. Right now, I want to be with my wife.

Of course, there will be no children. And one day soon my wife will wake to find my lifeless body lying beside her in bed.

I think about that for a moment.

Of course … there is the possibility of adoption, I suppose. Or IVF. Using donor sperm. And if, as I suspect, that five-year lifespan is due as much to Our dogged adherence to survival protocol as to anything biological – well, then maybe – maybe – I can beat this thing simply by wanting to.

What do I have to lose? What might I have to gain? Thirty years more? Ten? Five? It doesn’t matter. More time is all that is important. More time to write. To live. To be with my wife.

I switch off the light and make my way upstairs.

I can do this. I know I can do this.

No.

We can do this. Megan and I. Together.

First published in Passing Strange,
Mirrordanse Books, March 2002
Copyright © 2002 by Chuck McKenzie

Chuck McKenzie was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1970. After a graphic design course at Brighton Technical college he worked in numerous jobs, before he signed up for a Bachelor of Arts in professional writing and literature at Deakin University, which he completed in 1993. He published the novel Worlds Apart, the collection Confessions of a Pod Person, short fiction and articles in various magazines and edited an anthology of Australian sf, fantasy and horror tales.


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