Daffy whipped his head out from beneath the cold clear water and screamed at the top of his lungs. Grinding pain rocketing through every aching tendon, every weary muscle. Something forced his head back under. His screams turned to gurgles, scattered and bubbled silently to the surface.
Three blinding white lights buzzed and blazed wickedly overhead, rippling through the frothy shallow water.
He could feel something poking at his neck. Something sharp and cold and metallic, like a small knife or a pin. Long black fingers of blood snaked through the cool blue water.
He held his breath.
More poking and prodding and cutting, flaying away the skin. Blood swirling toward the surface forming long dark islands, blotting out the light.
He sputtered, sucked a breath of ripe freezing water. It rolled slowly down his throat, then evaporated instantly inside his lungs as if he'd breathed in nothing but air. He sucked in more. There was something fresh and clean and almost sugary about it.
He could see his own blood thickening in the narrow blue plane but he couldn't stop gasping for air. Getting weaker. Eyes flittering weakly in the shallow pool.
Then he was still.
When he awoke again he was dry. His head pressed flat against a slab of cold unforgiving steel. He felt that he could move his arms and legs and even get up and walk around if he wished, but strangely he had no desire to.
Those three pinsized bulbs still burned whitehot in the high ceiling, glowing red splotches imprinted on his irises. All around him the air felt close and tight and claustrophobic, as if he were surrounded by a thin layer of invisible glass.
When he swallowed he could feel something stiff and rigid and metallic scraping against his adam's apple.
One hand went slowly toward his throat.
"You just hold your horses boy," said Cecil. "You ain't in the clear just yet."
Dazedness washed over him. He tumbled back to sleep.
Bugs Bunny's eyes flashed open. He sat up and looked around.
Fire engines blocking off the intersection. Police cruisers. LAPD. A squealing ambulance idling noisily nearby. First responders scuttling rapidly back and forth, gathering around his overturned car and the flattened pickup truck beneath it. Thick gray gasoline spouting from the tank, feeding the harsh red tonguelike flames skirting off the pavement.
"Sir please! You're hurt! You're hurt!" two paramedics shrieked in unison, rushing to his side.
Bugs didn't believe it. He fought them off with either hand and unraveled the straps binding him to the gurney and slunk restlessly to his feet.
"I'm fine," he slurred. "I'm fine."
"Sir your face!"
He shook it off and slowly stumbled toward the crowd of jostling firefighters gathered around his busted car and started clawing his way to the front.
A tall redheaded cop grabbed him by the elbow and wrenched him away. "Get back on the stretcher sir."
"You're not fine sir. You've been involved in an accident."
The gastank sparked, then exploded. A colossal orange fireball knocking the entire crowd to its knees. The sky seared red. Black plumes of smoke flooded the street. Everybody coughing, staggering shakily to their feet, scampering for cover. Bugs jerked himself from the cop's grasp and staggered awkwardly toward the sidewalk. The officer grabbed him by the ankle and pulled him to the ground.
"You're in a lot of trouble buddy!"
"I didn't do nothin!"
"Terrorism!" barked the cop. "That's what this is! An act of terrorism!" He shoved Bugs against the ambulance and pinned him to the insignia. "You're goin to jail buddy. You're goin away for a long time. You won't see daylight where you're headed."
"I told you I didn't do nothin!"
The cop's freckled face only burned redder. "I saw the whole thing you lying bastard!" he bristled. "I saw you break custody! I saw you set it off!"
"Set it off?" Bugs stammered hysterically. "Set what off? I didn't set anything off!"
"I'll cut your lying fucking tongue out!" the cop sputtered.
"It's not my fault!"
"Liar!" His face contorted to an ugly, almost inhuman grimace. He stood nose to nose with his captive. His skin was cracked and scaly. His eyes withered and yellowed, pupils narrowing to sharp black slits.
Suddenly the pickup caught fire and a huge roar of flame snarled hotly through the air.
Bugs broke free and set off running as fast as he could.
"When you said interview I didn't kindly suspect that would entail breakin into my house and killin my dog," Cecil sneered, sipping coffee from a large pewter mug, eyeing Daffy not like a criminal but like an old friend gone mad with jealousy. "Still she got you pretty good. Went straight for the jugular just like I taught her."
Daffy sat slumped against the wall with his legs spread flat in front of him, hands cold and trembling in his lap.
"They say about 95 percent of people with major arterial injuries don't survive," Cecil mused. "You're one lucky duck if you don't mind me sayin."
"What is this?" Daffy rasped, clawing at his neck. Clamped to his throat was a tight metal band about the width of two fingers.
"Somethin I've been workin on."
"How do I get it off?"
"If you value your life I wouldn't worry about it."
Daffy's eyes grew wide.
Cecil snorted. "Short answer it ain't comin off. Believe me. It's for your own good."
"My own good? Why should I trust you?"
"You shouldn't. You shouldn't trust no one."
"What did you do to me?"
"Does it hurt?"
Cecil nodded. "Pry that sucker off, then you might be singin a different tune."
"What did you do to me?"
The turtle took a long slow sip. "Did you see her?"
"My dog. Did you get a good look at her?"
"She did it to herself. Started right after they left. I always knew it wasn't nothin natural. Wasn't nothin of this world makin her do it. Whatever it was, they brought it with em. They shot her full of it. Same as the cattle."
"Them little green men," Cecil murmured. "From Mars. Or so they said."
"If you want. Supposedly there's more than one planet they call home."
"So you have seen them."
"Seen em?" Cecil laughed. "They took me to their leader. They showed me all they had to offer. Knowledge. Customs. Technology. How else you think I could've saved you?"
Daffy looked around. Cecil's workshop was like a vault, lit by low domelights casting cool white cones over flat steel tables and cluttered workbenches. A small basin filled with fizzy tealish water stood at the head of a large padded operating slab. Daffy recognized it instantly. There was a long roll of white sheetmetal unfurled on a counter against the wall, gold circuitveins crisscrossing up and down the periphery.
Daffy sat up like a bolt of lightning. "Where's my stuff?"
"My stuff. My bag. I've got to write this down. Better yet," his eyes lit up, "why don't you come on my radio show. We'll shift some things around, book you whenever you're free. It's shortwave."
Cecil raised one hand dismissively. "That ain't important."
"Not important? This is huge. This is groundbreaking. You're a witness. You've got real concrete evidence."
"I told you it ain't important," Cecil glared.
Daffy shut up.
"This ain't a popularity contest."
"But if aliens really exist, don't you think people should be informed?"
Cecil leaned forward. "You at all familiar with the ancient Aztecs?"
"They had this ballgame called ullamaliztli," the turtle explained. "Whenever politics got in the way of pleasure, whenever rulers had their disagreements, instead of goin to war with each other they'd commission sides to play this ballgame on a big court in the middle of town and to the victor went the spoils. Fair and balanced. So to speak.
"But that wasn't the only use they had for this game. Sometimes they'd use it in ritual sacrifice. Invade some rival territory, murder all the women and children, enslave the men and force em to play their way out of it. Of course they never won. The Aztecs had all the best players."
Daffy remained frozen. "What's that got to do with anything?"
"What do you know about basketball?"
Daffy arched his eyebrows. "Used to play in high school. Never went out for college ball."
"But what do you really know about it? Do you know who invented it?"
Daffy sighed and rolled his eyes and thought about that for a moment. "James Naismith."
"Bingo." Cecil nodded slowly. "James Naismith. Canadian gym instructor. Invented the game in Massachusetts in 1891. That's the story. But in reality he didn't invent it. He transposed it. He moved it."
"I'm not following."
"These Martians, they're conquerors. Ruthless, just like the Aztecs were. They've got enough military might to overwhelm every sovereign planet in the galaxy. But like the Aztecs they'd rather fight a proxy war. They'd rather play a game. A simple game. Like basketball."
"It's a Martian wargame. Always has been. And these particular Martians wanna use it as a means to conquer Earth. Make it look like they gave us a fair shake, a fightin chance. Get everyone on their side before they turn the tables."
Daffy sat in silence.
"You don't believe it," Cecil muttered.
The duck shook his head. "I believe it. I've seen it coming my entire life." He shuffled slowly to his feet and felt a small jolt of pain shooting up the back of his neck and winced. "We've got to get the word out. We've got to warn people about this."
"And just how do you suppose you're gonna do that?"
"We've got to go on air. Shout it from the highest rooftops. Print up flyers, blanket the city with them. Let everybody know their plan. Let everybody know they're coming."
Cecil laughed a cruel hysterical laugh and sipped his coffee slow and deliberate. "Don't bother," he murmured. "They're already here."
The room fell silent after that.
"You ain't alone," Cecil went on after a while. "I seen it comin too. People like us, we always knew the score. There's even some cult operatin outta Los Angeles that went and made a religion out of it. Say we descended from Martians down here on Earth and that one day they'll come runnin back to save us from our own destruction. Well they got one thing right. They was always comin for us."
The sun was high in the sky when a small red taxicab skidded into Lola's apartment complex and straddled the sidewalk in front of her building. Bugs paid the driver and hopped out and jogged across the lawn leaping over sprinklerheads and dashing up the concrete steps. He scanned the panel by the door and hammered the buzzer next to Lola's name and stood waiting in silence with his hands on his hips and one foot tapping dramatically on the cement.
"Who is it?"
"It's me. You've gotta let me in."
Gears whirred inside the doorhandle and it popped right open. Bugs went in and pounded up the stairs to the third floor and started banging on Lola's door as hard as he could. When she let him in he pushed right past her and cut his way toward the bathroom and threw on the lights.
"What the hell happened to you?" Lola gasped.
He examined himself closely in the bathroom mirror, the long red gash running all the way from his forehead to his chin. Cutting through one eyebrow, peeling across his cheek and through both lips. He rubbed at it with the back of his forearm, left a huge bloody streak in his fur.
"Bugs what happened?" Lola pleaded. "Were you in a car accident?"
He watched her reflection wavering in the mirror, then he glanced back at his own. "Yeah. Somethin like that." He turned on her. "We've gotta get outta here."
"What are you talking about?"
"I'll explain when we're on the road. We've just gotta get outta here. You and me. Hurry up."
"I can't just up and leave."
"Bugs I'm in trouble. Because of you I'm in trouble. I've already lost four clients. On top of that these fucking beat reporters keep leaving me condescending messages and banging down my door every three hours. Do you have any idea how quickly work disappears in this town?"
He didn't answer.
"You really are clueless aren't you."
"Look we've gotta get outta here," he said again.
"You're not safe here. She'll find you."
"Honey? Honey did this to you? Is she out of her mind?"
"They're all outta their minds! The cops, they think I blew up half a city block downtown this morning!"
"The cops are after you?"
Bugs snatched a handtowel off the rack and pressed it gingerly to his face. "I was at the Convent this morning and they were goin on about benefactors and how the end was comin and how we've got debts to repay and whatever else and I don't know if I believe all that but there's definitely somethin strange goin on and I'm scared. For the first time in my life I'm really scared."
"Scared of what?" Lola muttered. "Some prophecy cooked up by a bunch of nutcase Star Trek junkies?"
Bugs clenched his fists in frustration. "This isn't a joke!" he blurted out. "I saw a man turn into a lizard right in front of me!"
She stood frozen for a moment and then she started laughing. "You're delusional."
Her words sizzled like hot gristle in the air. Bugs stood breathing heavily, blood trailing down his neck, staining his shirt. He stared at her, gave her a colder look than she'd thought he was capable of.
"Then why did I come back for you?" he said.
Daffy blinked and he was sitting in his truck with all his belongings cradled in his lap. His eyes took a while to adjust to the blinding midday sun glaring through the dustsmeared windshield. He could hear Chester whimpering softly in the backseat, clawing weakly at his kennel, starved.
Daffy touched his neck, felt the thin white collar biting at his skin. He sighed heavily and clumsily maneuvered around in his seat, fetching a can of dogfood from the dirty satchel in the floor. He broke the seal with a small pocketknife and pulled back the cover and offered it to Chester's long black snout. Then he unlocked the kennel and doled out a handful for the dog to eat. Chester gave him an odd sideways look, then he sat up flat on his haunches and craned his neck and licked the goo off his master's fingers.
When it was all gone Daffy helped the dog out of his kennel and set him in the passenger's seat and sat staring at him for a long time. He thought about Cecil's dog, thought about the huge chunks of flesh missing from her sides, the sharp blue eyes. He shuddered.
The truck started with a roar and rolled on down the long dirt driveway toward the mainroad. He watched the farmhouse slowly receding in the mirrors and only then did he truly begin to understand the severity of everything that had transpired beyond those gates.
He rode through a little immigrant town where battered mailboxes and sullen faces smeared by in a blur. They were all looking at him through those dark tinted windows, and they had such a way about them that he almost wondered if they could read his mind, if they could pick his thoughts as clearly as spreading out a newspaper. That blissful ignorance he'd grown so accustomed to had all but vanished.
He stopped at a gas station to fill up and went inside and bought a bottle of water and a bag of chips and as he walked up and down the aisles and as he stood awkwardly at the counter with change in hand he could feel their cold sunken eyes all glued to him as if they expected him to speak, as if they knew he harbored some terrible unheard secret. But for all his pontificating on the radio this lonesome secret had shied him down.
"You folks ever heard of UFOs?" he mumbled.
The cashier and the attendant both turned to him with broad indolent smiles. "You talkin bout that nutcase that live down the road from here?"
Daffy frowned. "You ever spoken to him?"
"Wouldn't think of wastin my time."
"What if I told you he wasn't a nut. What if I told you he had evidence."
"Evidence of what? Space aliens choppin up his chickens?"
"I'd ask you why he ain't never been on the news before. Why he ain't never been on the frontpage of the New York Times seein how he's got such great evidence."
"Probably the same reason you won't give him time of day," Daffy muttered.
They all glared at him. They didn't like him and they weren't about to consider him. They thought he was a yuppie. A cityslicker. A smartaleck. Too clever for his own good. Unamerican.
He paid and stormed out with his items and got back in his truck without filling up and gunned the engine and veered onto the interstate fuming. Small towns scattered and dissolved and morphed into cushy suburbs right before his eyes. Big lawns and minivans and children out riding their bikes in huge figure eights up and down their driveways. He pictured fires roaring on the hills, scorching the earth, entire neighborhoods flattened, lives destroyed. For now most of them would gladly sit and laugh at him in that same vain, alien, taunting, masochistic tone.
Conspiracy theorist conspiracy theorist conspiracy theorist!
The suburbs gave out a few milemarkers later. After a while he passed a big square sign that read, "Now entering Nevada." He set the car on cruise control and sat back lazily in his chair and watched the scenery roll on by, becoming sparser and sparser by the minute. Soon all vestiges of civilization had vanished and only gray sand and distant terracotta hills stood cut out before him. Tiny brown shrubs scrawled along the roadside. The occasional sign. Low powerlines zigzagging across the shrill flat terrain and over the countryside and out of view. A weird ladder of bloated white clouds ascending across the pitchblue sky. Sunlight gleaming off the windshield.
He rode on for a long time. He listened to music. He listened to country. He listened to reggae. He listened to everything. Whatever burned the radio dial.
Then the engine began to sputter and as the truck ground slowly to a roiling halt in the middle of the desert the dog's dark brown eyes bled fiercely and glowed the sharpest shade of blue.
"I can't believe I let you talk me into this," Lola grimaced. "I must've been out of my mind."
"Yeah somethin like that."
"Where are we going?"
"I don't know. Somewhere outside the city."
"We've been outside the city for over an hour Bugs. You planning on fleeing the state too?"
"I don't know. Probably already have."
"Where are we?"
"Lola I don't know. Take a look at the map if it makes you feel better."
She opened the glovebox and dug out a crumpled California state map and a diagram of the United States buried under an old pair of broken sunglasses. She unfolded them both and sat studying them silently in her lap.
"We're in Nevada," she said.
"Nevada," Bugs laughed. "That's funny."
"No it isn't."
"You always told me you wanted to go to Vegas."
"Maybe some other time. Maybe when we're not being chased by police."
"We're not bein chased by police."
"How do you know?"
"My face," Bugs reasoned. "They couldn't recognize me."
"Bugs you're an actor. If they've been through a movie theater in the past two years they should recognize you regardless."
"But I've never had scars in any of my movies."
She rolled her eyes. "That's reassuring."
They rode on down the freeway, passing through little podunk towns and villages and bickering over every sideroute, every detour, every exit. All around them the land slowly degraded and by the time they emerged into rocky desert all discussion had ceased.
When they spotted an unoccupied dark blue Suburban stopped along the side of the road they exchanged weary glances and continued blazing down the freeway. About a mile later they came across a lone figure in worn bluejeans and a black jacket trudging solemnly through the dirt. They slowed down and stopped for him.
"What's your name?"
"Daffy. Daffy Duck."
"What're you doin out here?"
"Truck ran outta gas. There's a station up ahead about twenty miles."
"Need a lift?"
"Sure why not. Thanks."