He came from the stars, a man seemingly made of steel, but was he ever the hero he claimed to be, or was he just a parasite in our midst?
The agent walked into the interrogation room with two Styrofoam cups of steaming coffee. The other man sitting at the small metal table looked nervous and uncomfortable. He occasionally glanced upwards towards the ceiling where a single fluorescent strip light provided the only illumination. It wasn’t surprising he was preoccupied with what was above him: they were over a hundred metres underground, protected within the most heavily fortified bunker complex on the planet. Even so, it might not be enough. The agent put one cup of coffee in front of the man. “Black, no sugar, right?”
He bobbed his head gratefully, then took a small sip. He couldn’t hide the slight wince. “Thank you,” he said, and he sounded honest.
The agent took the other chair and sat down opposite. He studied his subject carefully for a moment. He was probably in his early 60s, square-jawed and solid, dressed as he’d expect any Midwestern farmer to be. His grey hair was thinning rather than receding, and he wore a pair of glasses with narrow frames. His large hands were calloused from long years of farm work. He was everything the agent had been lead to believe he would be. “So, Mr Essex,” he began, taking out the folder he’d brought in with the coffees. “Shall we start at the beginning?”
“I think you already know everything,” Essex said, pointing at the folder.
“I know what’s on the public record, I know what you told other officials from the US government, but I also know that you kept a lot to yourself. I don’t want the story we’ve all heard a thousand times, Mr Essex: I want your story. Any additional information you can give us could help right now. I don’t have to tell you how critical the situation up there is.”
Essex sighed and clasped his hands on the table in front of him. The coffee, untouched save for the sip he’d taken before, steamed beside him. “Where do you want me to begin?” he asked.
“At the beginning, Mr Essex. The very beginning.”
He sighed heavily. “Well, I mean, I suppose it began the year before. Me and Mary we’d been married for….ohhh…fifteen years, I think. And, one day, the damndest thing happened. Mary’d been feeling strange for a little while, she had this bug she couldn’t shift, she thought, throwing up every morning like clockwork and, well, it took us a while, but eventually we put two and two together and we figured out she was pregnant.”
“You hadn’t been trying for a baby?”
“Mr Essex,” the agent said with the most reassuring smile he could manage given the circumstances, “some of the questions I ask you may be personal. This isn’t the time to be economical with the truth.”
“No, of course not. Sorry.” He took another sip of the terrible machine coffee. “We weren’t trying. We’d given up a long time ago. Never went to no doctors or anything – I guess because we didn’t want to know which of us it might be – but we’d stopped trying, as you say. That’s why it was such a surprise. Well, we were over the moon, as you can imagine. We celebrated and I started decorating the spare room, we got a crib from our neighbours.”
“Neighbours?” The agent flicked through the notes in the folder. “I thought your farm in Kansas was completely isolated?”
“Missouri,” Essex corrected, “though we’re right on the border. Easy mistake to make. Anyway, neighbours is a relative term you might say. The Johnsons from the next farm over, a couple miles up the road. The point is, we were real excited.”
“Yeah. But then, as I’m sure you know, something went wrong. Mary lost the baby.”
The agent nodded. “Do you know why?”
“No, sir. No, sir I don’t. Just one of them things I suppose. She didn’t do nothing wrong. Ate all the right foods – though, you know, this is thirty years ago, so it wasn’t quite the same then as it is now – didn’t have no falls, didn’t lift nothing heavy. It just happened. We were real upset. After waiting so long…then to lose the baby like that…” He took his glasses off and wiped the lenses on his sleeve. The agent gave him a moment.
“And then, a short time later, that’s when you observed the meteor shower?”
Essex smiled faintly. “That’s right. I was out walking at night. I guess I’d taken to doing that after what happened. It was hard to sleep, you know, with the room next door half painted and all, thinking about that empty crib. So I used to take a walk out into the fields at night, looking up at the stars. And then, one night in…ohhh…I think it must’ve been late October? Sometime in the fall anyhow. Well, one clear, starry night, I saw the meteor shower.”
“It was October 21st,” the agent clarified. “The shower was seen across the country.”
“Yeah, that sounds about right. Well it was the damndest thing I ever saw, all these shooting stars lighting up the sky for at least half an hour. But there was one that was real big and I could see it getting bigger and bigger and that’s when I figured it was falling right towards me.”
“It crashed on your land, is that right?”
“Yes, sir. It shook the whole place up, like an earthquake, and there was this big flash of light over to the west where it landed. Had to shield my eyes, but even then I couldn’t see real good for ten minutes after. I knew sometimes meteors could land like that, nothing strange about it, and I thought maybe I oughta just phone the police or fire department or something.”
“But you didn’t?”
“No, sir. I don’t know what it was, but something made me want to go and take a look myself. Curiosity I guess. Simple human curiosity. I mean, it could’ve been anything, couldn’t it? It could’ve been dangerous.”
“It was,” the agent said.
“Well yes. But at the time…hey, are you gonna interrupt the whole way through?”
The agent smiled slightly. Even at a time like this, this cantankerous old farmer still had some bite left. They built them to last in the Midwest, that was for sure. “Just trying to clarify things as we go, Mr Essex.”
“I don’t even know your name,” he grumbled.
“It isn’t important. Please carry on.”
“All right, so I walked maybe a mile or so and then of course I found the crater. It made a real mess of my cornfield, I can tell you, but I didn’t care right then because of the thing in the middle.”
“If you wanna call it that,” Essex said with a sharp look, “It was just a big glowing thing really, all made of crystals it looked like. And in the middle of it was, well…I suppose you’d call it an incubator.” He sounded out the word carefully.
“And that was where you found the child?”
“Weren’t a child – more like a baby. Only seemed a few months old to me. A perfect little baby boy, sitting in the middle of this great shining thing from the stars, looking at me with his huge blue eyes.” Essex seemed to get emotional again as he talked. That was understandable.
“And what did you do then?” the agent pressed.
“Well, I didn’t rightly know what to do, sir. I ran and got Mary first of all. I mean, what would you have done? A baby drops out of the sky, just a few months after we lost ours, and it seems like a gift from God, you know? Of course, we thought about the possibilities. He came from up there,” he pointed. “Not heaven. Even if he was a gift. I mean from space. We knew that. We knew he couldn’t be human, unless maybe he was from the future.”
“You didn’t tell anyone about how the child was discovered though?”
Essex snorted a laugh. “How could we? Next morning, I hooked the ship up to the tractor and dragged it straight into the old barn. And the baby, well, who were we supposed to tell? Weren’t like he was lost or anything. He wasn’t from Earth. And we’d wanted our own for so long and, well, what would you have done?”
“I don’t know,” the agent admitted, when he realised the question wasn’t rhetorical.
“Neither did we, really. But we did what we thought was right, and we raised him as our own. Named him after Mary’s old dad.”
“Kyle,” the agent said.
“That’s right. And no matter where he came from, and no matter what’s happened since, he was still our son. Kyle Essex, a good Missouri farm boy.”
“Of course.” This wasn’t the first time the farmer had made this point. “When did you notice the child was unusual?”
“Well, he grew fast. I mean, we didn’t have nothing to compare him with, but it seemed fast to us. And he was always eating, like he couldn’t get enough food. He liked to sit out in the sun. He was always happiest out there, just lying there, soaking up the rays like he was on some beach in California. Never got burnt neither. In fact, he never got hurt at all. Never scraped a knee, never burnt his little mouth on something, never got sick or caught a cold. He was healthy and strong. Real strong.”
“Uh huh,” the agent said, leafing through the folder. “Tell me about the incident with the car.”
“That was probably the first time we noticed Kyle was different. I mean, afterwards, we realised there were a whole lot of other signs, but that was the first time it all clicked into place, as you might say. We were driving into town, going to pick up a new outfit for the boy – the way he grew, we had to buy clothes for him near enough every month!” There was a fatherly chuckle in his voice as he said that, and the agent suddenly felt profoundly sorry for this old man, who’d done nothing to deserve his fate except be in the wrong place at the wrong time. “Anyhow, I must’ve had a slow puncture or something, because the truck started to handle real bad and we had to pull over. I got a jack in the trunk so I winched the old girl up and started to change the tyre. I don’t really know what happened exactly, but I was lying on the ground and my leg must’ve been in the way, and the jack just…gave way. It was old, you know? But the truck landed right on my leg, near enough shattered my knee and I was trapped there. Well, we were miles from anyplace, with no way to get the truck back up, I was trying to hold it together, Mary was in tears, we was in a real bad situation. That’s when Kyle stepped in.”
“How old was he at the time?”
“No more’n three. But he looked older. Maybe like he was five or six? But, even so, what he did next…” Essex puffed out his cheeks. “He just…he put his little hands under the bumper and he just…he just lifted…” He mimed the heavy truck being pushed into the air effortlessly by the small child. “Damndest thing.”
“He saved you?”
“He did, sir. He saved me and I believe it was because he loved me. Remember that. He loved his folks.”
“Of course. What happened after that?”
“Well, we couldn’t rightly figure out what was going on, but we knew Kyle was special. He fell from space, so of course he was special. But strength like that? And his speed, and everything else. He was helping on the farm within a year, what with my leg never quite healing properly, bringing in the harvest single-handedly almost, and faster than a bullet flying out of a gun.”
“You sent him to school soon after that?”
Essex nodded slowly. “It was hard.”
“Because he had to rein himself in. We told him so. We told him the world just wasn’t ready for someone like him. He had to blend in, keep quiet, not attract attention. But he was just…just better than all the other kids. Not just his body, but his mind too. And, of course, he kept finding himself in these situations where he’d have to use his abilities to save somebody. The accident with the school bus was the first time people started to get suspicious. We moved him to another school, but he couldn’t never blend in, not really. Not him. People were drawn to him like he was a magnet. He had this…presence about him. I don’t know a better word for it, sir. People wanted to be around him, they looked to him, like he was some sort of symbol.”
“Right. And that’s how it began. He graduated, and we said he oughta go to college, but he went off to the city to become a reporter. We didn’t know why, really, but looking back it made sense. He wanted to be what he was born to be. We told him to hide, and he did. He put on a suit, a pair of glasses, combed his hair different, hunched his shoulders. Acted all…”
“Yeah! Yeah that’s it exactly. But then he made himself known. He saved that jet, you know?”
“We all know,” the agent said.
“He changed the world,” Essex said wistfully. “Our boy. But he never forgot his roots. He came back home and he was still our son. Even when he wore the suit, even when he did all the things he did, he was still our son. But I wonder…I wonder if we did something wrong…”
The agent looked hard at the old man. He seemed shrunken by relating the story. “Like what?”
“We tried to raise him right. Taught him about truth and justice, you know? We raised him the American way. Cornfields, apple pie, the Pledge of Allegiance, college football. We wanted him to be a good boy. And he was. He was a good boy, sir. He wanted to protect people. He wanted to be a hero.”
“I believe you, Mr Essex,” the agent said, “and I think if you hadn’t raised him that way, things could have been a lot worse, as hard as that is to imagine.”
“Thank you,” Essex said, and he looked pathetically grateful. Not surprising, given all he’d had to endure for the last few years. “I just…I just don’t know where it went wrong…”
“He couldn’t hide from his true nature. You might have called him Kyle Essex and raised him on a Missouri farm, but he was not of this world. He was a parasite, sent to walk among us, sent to prepare us for the others.”
“I know,” Essex said in a quiet voice. “But what would you do if you found a baby like that?”
That was the idea, of course. That was their central strategy. The agent didn’t know if Mary’s pregnancy was caused by the aliens as well, but it was certainly within the realms of possibility. In either case, they studied their target world for years – perhaps centuries – and sent one of their own to infiltrate. An infant, in the form of the host species, to be nurtured by them, to learn their ways and then to become a leader. The aliens were incredibly powerful, and even in the form of a human, one of their kind was like a god amongst them. It was inevitable that Kyle Essex – to give him the name of the identity he’d used to remain secret for so long – would rise to glory as his alter-ego. It was in his nature. He’d wanted to be a hero, or so his adopted father thought. Maybe that had been true, for a while, but that had changed over time. He’d come to hold those he’d vowed to protect in contempt. He’d begun to desire domination, not service, and who had the power to stop him? He was, as Mr Essex had said, faster than a bullet shot from a gun, as physically powerful as a freight train, and he could jump clear over a skyscraper. Invulnerable, invincible, perhaps even immortal. When he decided to take over, what could they do except capitulate?
And then, the others came. “What we need to know, Mr Essex,” the agent asked carefully, “is does he have any weaknesses?”
“You know he don’t,” Essex replied with a slow shake of his head.
“I don’t mean physically. You know him better than anyone.”
“I thought I did.”
“Is there no way we might control him? Nothing we could show him, or do to him, that might persuade him to start negotiating?”
“Maybe a few years ago you could’ve done something like that. But now he’s got the others? I don’t even know him. He was my son, but now he’s just one of them.”
Them. A race of super-powered aliens just like Kyle Essex. They screamed down from space in their crystal ships and poured out in their thousands. Now they were conquering all before them, driving back Earth’s armies. It had only been months, but already much of North America was smoking ruins. And Kyle flew at their head, his trademark outfit now rendered in black, subverted to match the uniforms favoured by his people. Humanity was on the brink of annihilation.
“Anything you know might help us, John.”
“You know everything already.”
“I understand.” The agent stood up and drained his now-cold coffee. “You’ve been very helpful. Thank you.”
“Wait, what happens now? Can I go?”
The agent gave Essex a sad look. “Go where? There’s nothing up there, Mr Essex. You son has seen to that. He was sent here to destroy us. I can only hope we find some way to stop him and his people.”
The agent left the interrogation room, leaving John Essex behind, his head bowed in defeat. It really wasn’t his fault – they probably couldn’t have killed the child even if they’d wanted to – but it was hard not to wonder if things might have been different. This was what the aliens did though. They put a traitor in their victims’ midst, made them think he was a saviour, and then attacked when the world was ready for conquest, when they were dependent on their hero, when they’d laid down their arms in favour of a super-being’s apparently benevolent rule. Only one small thing gave him hope; the ancient legends that told of the changelings left in place of human children by the denizens of the otherworld; faerie-folk. Fanciful tales, but perhaps the half-forgotten memories of another invasion attempt long ago. If the aliens had been beaten then, maybe they could be beaten now.