By Dan Lee
Author’s Note: This story is meant as a tribute to Ed Wood’s unfortunate classic Plan 9 from Outer Space. Recognized by many as one of the worst films ever made, I’ll offer no argument defending the production. The execution of the story was abysmal, however, the story itself was ahead of its time in some regards. This is a tribute to what could have been the greatest science fiction horror classic of Hollywood’s Golden Age. I’ve taken exceptional liberties with character and location, however, the overall story remains the same.
Plan 9 – The belief that humanity must be shocked into acknowledging that it is a danger to itself and the greater universal community. The penultimate solution to the “human problem.”
What you are about to read is a warning issued to us by intelligences far beyond what you or I would commonly be able to understand; a sentience beyond comprehension. It is a warning for the present that speaks of a grim future should we refuse to bring about a change in ourselves and our societies. The story has been hyperbolized, fictionalized and embellished where needed to protect those who suffered through the horrifying encounter, who endured the crucible and lived to share a message not only of terror but of hope.
It was like something out of a nightmare. The monitor flickered with images, from grainy black and white to high definition color of some of mankind’s greatest hits. War, famine, pestilence and genocide blazed in shades so vivid and tangible that it was almost nauseating. Pundits and priests in every spoken language cast blame and flowed their hate filled rhetoric in a torrent through television signals and radio broadcasts towards the steadily growing flames charring the edges of society. Ghetto scenes and slums littered in half-starved bodies gave way to evangelicals in stadium sized chapels demanding money for gods who had never done anything to help those suffering masses, gave way still to rioting in the streets and impulse buy ads for the latest smart phone. It was a sickening parade of greed and cruelty that made the Observer ill. With a long, slender arm it reached up to the dial beside the screen and gradually muted the brightness until it was transparent.
The lower appendages lifted it up until it stood nearly as tall as the ceiling. The Observer was monolithic while standing, a collection of thin, branching pieces that formed legs, arms, and fins to help it move through the confines of the craft. It was a deep maroon color except for the places near each joint and knuckle where jeweled in clusters of shimmering eyes that monitored everything around it. From somewhere within the confederation of moving pieces, a croaking, gurgling noise began to reverberate. From a low growl to a terrifying roar it raged to itself over what it had witnessed. Its lower extremities clattered and clicked carrying it fluidly through the sharply angled corridors towards the center chamber of the vessel. Climbing along tiers within the center of the craft, it reached a honeycombed chamber where dozens of other, similar creatures had woven themselves together into an even larger mass.
The Observer’s limbs began to separate, its body unwinding as it wove itself into the tangled assemblage of its crewmates, of the other portions of itself that were at once individual and a part of the collective whole. Within minutes the entire vessel rang with the agonized, guttural howling that had first filled the observation room as memories of what had just been seen carried their way through the branching sameness of the homogenous cluster. The decision was immediate and unanimous. The vessel lurched once then began its descent into the atmosphere. If humanity was so keen on inflicting horror upon itself, the Observer would bring them great joy.
“I can’t believe you’re making me go to this.” Roger Martin grumbled as the plane hit another pocket of turbulence. He was thirty-four, scraggly with a patchy brown beard and receding hair over his furrowed brow. He wore a thick black pair of glasses forever resting on the bridge of his nose.
“To your own father’s funeral?” Eileen, his wife argued. She was thirty, lithe and beautiful with mocha colored skin and dark hair braided down to her shoulders. “You’re mad that I’m making you go to your father’s funeral? Are you listening to yourself tonight?”
“You clearly didn’t know him.” Roger said, slamming back what was left of the third vodka tonic he’d had since the flight had started an hour ago. “He was a bastard and he felt the same way about me that I felt about him.”
The plane jerked, dipped again as it rode across another pocket of turbulence. Eileen gasped. Roger’s expression softened as he slipped his hand into his wife’s and gently squeezed.
“I know you mean well,” he told her sweetly. “It’s just such a weird, complicated situation and, well, I have my reasons.”
Eileen leaned over, kissed Roger on the forehead.
“I know you do.” She said soothingly. “I just don’t want you to live with the regret, you know? Maybe you two didn’t get along in life but none of that matters now. You’re only going to get one chance to say good bye and I don’t want you to regret it if you don’t.”
“How is it that you’re this sweet?” He asked, smiling. “I’m a lucky guy.”
“You’re damn right, you are.” Eileen said, beaming. She reached across the seat and closed the window looking out over the wing. “Let’s get some sleep. We’ve still got a long way to go.”
The plane rocked again, more violently than before as it drifted through another pocket of turbulence. Roger finished of his vodka tonic and motioned for the flight attendant to bring him another.
“I hate flying.” Roger muttered, leaning his head back against the seat.
“This will pass.” Eileen said reassuringly as she gripped her husband’s hand.
Smiling, Roger closed his eyes and kissed his wife’s hand.
“You’re too good for me, Eileen.”
The town of Criswell was about two hours south of Nashville, hidden inside a valley in the Appalachian foothills and all but forgotten save for the five hundred or so residents who lived there. It was the sort of iconic, main street community that could have been in a Norman Rockwell painting with its beautiful storefront displays, historic architecture, and rich history dating back to a time before the Civil War had ravaged the land. A single police car sat parked most nights by the lone traffic light in the heart of the town leading to everywhere and nowhere simultaneously. To the north, the highway ran to Nashville. To the south, the Georgia line. East and west stretched out into residential patches and sparse farmland before giving way to hills and nothing. It was in this bucolic spread where the Wood Family Cemetery waited.
The cemetery sprawled across ten acres of infertile farmland and had become the final resting place of every man, woman and child to ever shuffle off their mortal coil in the tiny village. A small Federal style house turned antebellum mansion served as both viewing parlor and mortuary in the center of the graveyard with narrow dirt roads clover looping out from it around to all parts of the lush gardens that had sprang up within the fields of stone sepulchers and monuments. The main parlor had been adorned in folding chairs and floral arrangements with boxes of tissue sitting in every third seat waiting for the next day’s services. At the foot the raised dais in front of a small, stained glass window, a casket waited with its lid closed to preserve the dignity of its occupant and the decorum of the room. The board beside the door read “Walter Martin” in slightly off center letters and there was a picture of the old man scowling from a frame on the adjacent table. The book and pens had been placed out for mourners who would come by to pay their respects but, knowing the reputation the man had held among his neighbors, associates, and his own children, the staff of the funeral home had chosen to place very few sheets of paper inside the book. It seemed best not to be wasteful.
Outside, a series of orange and green lights flickered through the windows, followed by a whirring hum. As quickly as they had appeared, they were gone, leaving undisturbed everything that they had cast their glow upon. Mice began to scuttle across the floor joists, through the ancient walls, the dust covered corners and forgotten nooks. This was soon replaced by another noise, a scratch, scrabbling of pin prick nails across the hardwood. Arachnid fingers, glistening gems of eyes glowing from around each knuckle, skittered across the ground in pairs of two until they stood as tall as the casket on its raised podium. Forming a strange, clawed hand, they lifted the lid of the casket. Two fingers broke away, became a crucifix shaped body that crawled along the man’s corpse. Forcing itself around the back of the head, the sharp nails began to burrow into the base of his skull, pulling the foreign creature inside until only the glistening eyes and nubbed elbow remained outside.
The corpse spasmed violently, flailing from side to side until it at last toppled the casket onto the ground, spilling its contents to the floor. The lid struck the hardwood and gouged a chunk from it, bent back the hinges until the casket itself lay face down and flat. After a few minutes, a pair of old, liver spotted hand pressed forward, lifting the coffin as the corpse of Walter Martin freed itself from within. Standing up for the first time in days, he took two wobbling, uncertain steps and braced himself against the pulpit on the dais behind him. His body was still, rigid from rigor mortis and the mortician’s prodding. Taking slow, deliberate steps, his limbs jerking unnaturally, he walked into the foyer and pushed against the door. When it failed to yield, he reached back with both of his cold, bloodless hands and smashed into it with all his strength. The first blow rocked it from its hinges. The second splintered the frame and sent the door tumbling out across the porch and into the sidewalk beyond.
Driven by the terrible will at work inside of him, he lumbered down the stairs and into the graveyard beyond.
Lyle Talbot had been the grave digger for the Wood Cemetery for thirty years. With his dirt stained overalls, leathered features, and blood red nose the alcoholic had earned himself a reputation as an eccentric. He chose to dig the graves the old fashioned way, with a shovel and a pick and preferred to do his work at night by lamp light. Children said that he was a witch, some master of arcane knowledges and necromancy who sang to the dead to harvest the mysterious powers within their dried bones. Everyone else knew the much less exciting truth. Lyle was nothing but an old drunk, a man who’d wasted his talent looking for hustles and get rich quick schemes that had left him penniless. The job had been gifted to him out of pity and he preferred to do his work after dark so that no one could complain about the smell of cheap whiskey that seeped from his pores or the obscenities that slipped from his lips with every bawdy ballad he sang. Starting promptly at sundown each night he’d work through as much of his repertoire as he could remember before the words became too slurred for him to understand. Then, settling in for a break about midnight, he’d finish off his flask and nap until sunrise in the fresh grave.
The headstone had already been placed and he’d managed to break about five feet before dimming his lamp with his hat and laying his shovel beside it. With his hands behind his head, he began to snore as Walter Martin, the grave’s intended resident, shambled by with his new friends in tow. The strange creatures scrabbled together until they had formed something roughly the size of their companion. With each small finger reaching out in a successive wave, they grabbed the shovel lying on the ground and passed it up until it hovered eye level with the dead man beside them. With his cold hands he reached out and took the handle, looked down into the grave, and jabbed it at the unconscious drunk. The spade sliced into his neck with a precision strike that severed his jugular artery. Lyle’s eyes shot open, his calloused hands immediately grabbing at the spray of blood gushing from his throat. He tried to climb out of the grave as the smell of copper mixed with the fresh wet dirt, as that vital red erupting from his wound churned into mud beneath his boots. The light began to fade from his eyes. Reaching out in desperation he grabbed hold of Walter’s pant leg and tugged once trying to pull himself free before collapsing face first into the grave.
Pieces of the alien creature broke away from the larger whole, scuttling down along the chain of unusual appendages as they descended into the earth with Lyle. Soon, what had been one had become two.
And soon, they would be more.
“What do you mean ‘he’s gone’?” Roger Martin shouted across the desk at the funeral director that morning.
Mister Wood was a small, delicate looking man in an ill-fitting black suit with a thin mustache and slicked back hair. His features were gaunt, angular and gave him all the lovability of a weasel or some other verminous animal as he cringed in his desk.
“I simply mean he has been misplaced… temporarily.” Wood offered sheepishly.
Roger looked over his shoulder at the overturned coffin in the parlor, the police tape flapping against the devastated door frame, and back to Wood.
“People don’t get ‘misplaced’, Mister Wood.” He said through gritted teeth. “They go missing.”
“You’re absolutely correct, sir. But maybe this will simply be one of those peculiar sort of unexpected hiccups that you’ll look back on in the years to come and laugh about?”
Roger’s face was red, the veins on his forehead bulging as he reached across the desk and snatched Wood up from his chair by his tie.
“A hiccup?” He shouted in the man’s face. “No one’s laughing about this, Mister Wood. No one’s going to laugh about this. Corpses don’t just get up in the middle of the night and go for a stroll.”
He shoved the funeral director back into his chair.
“No one liked the man,” Roger continued, more calmly. “Hell, I didn’t like the man, but I got on a red eye last night and flew half way across the country to be here. And now you’re telling me that someone has taken off with his body? Here? In this town?”
Straightening his tie, Mister Wood stood up and walked, carefully, to his client. Placing a hand gingerly on the man’s shoulder he tried to be as reassuring as possible as he spoke.
“The police are investigating the matter,” Wood said nonchalantly. “And our insurance will cover any damages incurred. I’m certain your father will be returned before the night is over.”
“What about that old drunk, Talbot?” Roger asked. “Where the hell was he when all this happened? Passed out in a ditch somewhere?”
The already ashen faced Wood seemed to turn a shade paler at the comment.
“Mister Talbot,” he choked on the words. “Disappeared last night as well. Along with a young woman from a mausoleum near the back of the cemetery.”
“Unbelievable,” Roger said, walking away from the desk. “You people are unbelievable. You have one job. One! Keep track of dead people. They literally just lie around and rot in a box. How the hell do you screw that up?”
“Please keep your voice down.” Wood scolded.
“What? Afraid I’ll wake the dead?”
Mister Wood again placed his hand on Roger’s shoulder and began pushing him towards the door.
“I assure you, Mister Martin, your father will be recovered soon and all this will be made right. We’ll call you the moment we find out anything.”
Eileen Martin stood under the swaying shade of a willow tree with her arms folded across her chest, listening to the steadily escalating confrontation between her husband and the verminous little funeral director even over the din of carpenters and cops rummaging through the scene. She’d already lost interest in the ongoing commotion outside, the whispered recriminations and speculative rumors that gave way into fear mongering superstition and fantasy. The sideways glances at her from as she stood next to a waving branch of the tree, the scandal growing in that the tiny Southern town by her mere presence. Things had been fine when they lived in Nashville, when they had lived almost everywhere through the region and across the country. But here in Criswell, in that homogeneous little speck of nothing in the middle of nowhere, the scandal of a prominent man’s son marrying a black woman was worse than the missing corpse. “Half black” she recalled wryly from her now departed father-in-law’s toast as he spoke of the bride’s parentages at the wedding.
She wasn’t worried about any of that, though, as she stared at the wreckage that had been the front door of the funeral home.
She had hated Walter Martin just like everyone else in the miserable little town had hated him. She’d hated his racist jokes and none too subtle jabs at her mixed heritage. She hated the way he always left her out of Christmas cards, family photos, even the vague niceties of a simple phone call. There was never a “Hi” or “Hello” or a “Nice to see you.” It was always, “Where’s the boy?” referring to her husband. But the rift between father and son, the brooding anger that had become their relationship and the nature of their falling out were all shrouded in mystery. There was never a word of explanation, even acknowledgement of that bitterness. When asked, Roger would always shrug it aside and change the subject, only to say that he hated the man. It broke her heart to see the pain, the longing in him for something better. Even now, the funeral parlor in shambles and the body missing, all she could think of was how her own distaste for the entire situation was secondary to Roger’s. She could hear her husband shouting, swearing, and sounding so much like his father that it turned her stomach.
Roger stormed through the open hole in the wall, his face blood red and twisted into a hauntingly familiar scowl. He stomped past the cops and repairmen, ignoring their muffled whispers and glances. In a silent rage he marched towards his wife and, with a sudden softening of his posture, wrapped his arms around her waist, buried his face in the nape of her neck and began to sob.
Reaching up around his shoulders, she placed her hands gently on his head and neck.
“This will pass,” she whispered. “This will pass and we’ll make things right.”
To be continued...