Pandora took a step away from the faceless man, but he had a firm grasp on her hair with one hand and her arm with the other. She ripped her head back painfully and he ended up with a handful of her hair. She tried to pull away from the hand holding her arm as well, but only succeeded in falling backward and pulling him on top of her. He grabbed at her face again, rubbing the clump of hair in her eyes. She screamed as loudly as she could with his hand covering her mouth.
Blaise and the Doctor reacted instantly. Blaise ran straight for Pandora while the Doctor yelled out, “Hey, Rube!”
The worker at the dart and balloon booth vaulted over the barrier. The two men running the Orbiter left the controls unattended. The stilt man abandoned the poles he was on and hit the ground running. The sword swallower yanked the rapier out of his throat and brandished it while she looked for the source. Carnival workers from all over the faire came running.
Blaise grabbed the man’s hand, pulling it off Pandora’s face. The man tried to grab Blaise instead, but several of the workers tackled him at once, forcing him off Pandora.
The woman was reaching out for anybody she could get a hold of, looking like a zombie from an old Universal picture. The Swede came up behind her and put her into an arm lock.
Three of the workers held the man down while two kicked at him and another punched him repeatedly in the area his face should be, but he continued to struggle with unnatural strength. The two from the Orbiter were about to start in on the woman. “No!” the Doctor yelled, running up to the altercation. “Don’t hurt them! You’ve subdued them, they’re no longer a threat!” He stood between them with his arms out protectively.
The workers beating the faceless man paused, not quite sure about stopping.
Pandora pushed herself up onto her elbows and backed away from the faceless man who had assaulted her. The Doctor looked to her with concern while still standing between the carnival workers and the faceless woman. “Are you alright?” he asked.
“Yeah, I guess. Just a bit of a shock.” Pandora stood up and put one hand to the spot on her head where the patch of hair had been torn out. She pulled her hand away to examine it for blood and repeated the process a couple more times before she was satisfied that she wasn’t bleeding. “No real harm done though.”
“You see?” the Doctor said. “It’s over now and no harm done. Let’s bring them someplace out of the way where they can’t hurt anyone else. Then we can find out why they’re here.”
At least half the crowd had their cell phones out and were filming the abbreviated fight. It was going to take a lot more than a fire-breather to distract them this time. The Doctor stepped close to Pandora and said quietly, “We need to get them to protective custody.” He pulled out his own mobile and dialed 999.
The faire workers had them trussed up quite nicely, bound together back-to-back, seated on a pair of wooden chairs that were part of a balancing act at the faire. The Doctor and Pandora regarded them while they waited for the police to arrive.
“What are they?” Pandora asked.
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen one before, but if you were looking at them through a dark mirror, a pretty good approximation of human, wouldn’t you say?” the Doctor said thoughtfully, biting his thumbnail.
“Are you saying that you don’t think they usually look this way?”
“Well, I’m willing to bet they don’t have a Juicy Couture on the other side of the mirror, and I’m pretty sure that’s where they came from. I think this is them trying to blend in. To look like us, but really they are incredibly alien. No common frame of reference at all.”
“But then why did they get the shirt perfectly right, down to the alligator logo, but they can’t do a proper face?”
“That’s just what I mean. Faces are really hard. They’ve been trying for ages to get computers to recognize the same face through disguises or even just wearing makeup, but you humans have evolved with a huge chunk of your brain dedicated to nothing but facial recognition. The first thing that children learn is faces. They can pick mum out of thousands in the first hours, but over the next month or so they do nothing but build a catalog of faces. The very fact that these creatures can’t get even basic features present on the faces they’ve made means that they aren’t anything like us at all, and I mean from their very origin and evolution.”
The two stood in silence watching the alien couple. Both male and female were struggling with their bonds, but there was no chance. No one, except maybe sailors and boy scouts, could tie knots like a fair worker. Eventually, the two managed to wiggle a hand around close enough to touch the other’s, and they settled down.
“Is that how they communicate, I wonder? Through touch?” Pandora asked.
“Hmm,” the Doctor responded, watching the whole thing with keen interest. “That’s been my theory. Perhaps in their native form they have antennae or something, and this is the closest they’ve got in human form. You said that’s how you they were, when you first saw them, right? Holding hands?”
“Yeah, but lots of people do that. I didn’t really think anything of it,” Pandora confirmed.
While the Doctor was musing, the police arrived and the Doctor broke off mid-sentence. He approached them, flipping open his psychic paper. “The Doctor, Interpol, Special Circuses and Travelling Fairs.”
He put the psychic paper in his hoodie pocket and snapped his fingers, pointing at the seated couple. “We need these people placed in custody. I’ll need an interrogation room where I can interview them properly. And we’ll need restraints as well. They are stronger than they look. And make sure you have enough, there are five more in their gang. Did I forget anything, Pandora?”
“Keep them separated. We don’t want them communicating,” she said.
“Pandora Jones, undercover operative. One of our finest,” the Doctor said by way of introduction. “She uncovered the ring.”
While the police busied themselves untying the couple and placing them under arrest, the Doctor and Pandora stood back to let them do their job. “I need to find some way to communicate with them. Find out why they are here, and what they want.”
“Yeah,” Pandora added, “and why they have to mutilate those people to get it.”
“Exactly!” the Doctor said. “Something about that just doesn’t make sense. I feel like I’m missing something, maybe something obvious.”
Blaise entered the area at that point, and when he saw the Doctor and Pandora off by themselves, he made a bee-line for them. “I just wanted to let you know that we gaff-taped some blankets over the mirrors. We won’t have any more accidents with them.”
“Good. Um, well done,” the Doctor said.
“And the faire is closing down for the day, so I thought maybe I could hang out with you two. I think I can help, you know, if things get physical again. But mostly, I just want to help.”
The Doctor regarded him shrewdly. It seemed obvious to him that Blaise wanted to be where Pandora was more than he actually wanted to help, but on the other hand, he could see in him that spark of the extraordinary, that recognition that this is a chance to be a part of something world-changingly big. Most people when they see that, they look the other way and do what they can to continue with life as normal, pretending that it is. Blaise was the sort who would always regret having been so close but not seeing it through. Also, there was the fact that the last time they left him on his own he did something monumentally stupid. “Alright. Good to have you Blaise. Pandora, will you fill him in while I talk to the police?”
“‘Fill him in’? What do you mean? How much should I tell him?” Pandora asked, giving the Doctor a conspiratorial look.
The Doctor smiled broadly. “Tell him everything. If he does the smart thing and runs, we’ll know he wasn’t right for the job.”
With that, he turned and walked over to the Police.
Once they had finally resorted to cutting the ropes rather than try to untie them, they’d gotten the couple separated. The moment they did that, the couple became violent again, the male taking swings at anything within reach, and the woman clawing at anyone who touched her. The police managed to tackle them both to the ground and cuff their hands behind their backs about the time the Doctor approached them.
“What’s the mysterious ‘fill me in’?” Blaise asked.
Pandora sighed. Alright, he said everything. “The Doctor is an alien, okay? Some sort of alien detective. He knows a lot about stuff like this, and he has a time-traveling spaceship - Only, it’s not letting him in right now, so that’s a thing. In the few months I’ve known him, we’ve stopped a giant psychic spider from taking over the world, we travelled to another world to return children’s souls to them, and we made a big old asteroid pass through the Earth instead of destroying England, just to stop a time-traveling art thief.”
Pandora took a deep breath and continued. “The Doctor thinks these are creatures from another dimension that are so alien they don’t know what faces even look like and that these aren’t their normal forms, they’re just trying to look like us. All the other victims will have faceless duplicates too. He wants to figure out how to communicate so we can see why they’re here and what they want.”
She paused, thinking back over everything she said. “Yeah, I think that’s you, filled in.”
“Wow,” Blaise said. “That’s a lot to process. I’m in though - let me just say that up front, but... wow.” He paced back and forth several steps with Pandora watching him for any response. He stopped and turned to her. “But you’re human, right?”
Pandora smiled warmly. “Yeah, I’m human. Just a normal Earth girl, living on the streets of London. I like chips and ska and Arsenal, I don’t like people who smoke and I hate people who pretend to be nice just because they want something.”
“Is he on board? We’re all good then?” the Doctor asked as he approached. “Good. I’ve got us a ride to the station. We’re going to interview the male.”
The Doctor’s cover story for Blaise was that he was a relative of one of the victims, and until they knew whether the appearance of these violent, faceless people was in any way related to the recent string of victims, he was going to stick around to advocate for them. This was enough to get him into the station, but not enough for the interrogation room. He watched the Doctor and Pandora conduct the interview from the other side of the mirrored glass along with a police observer.
The Doctor and Pandora waited in the room while one officer brought in a folding chair for Pandora, and a second officer pulled in the faceless male, now in a straightjacket. He forced him into a metal chair on the other side of the table, then attached a length of chain to a loop on the back of the jacket, and ran it down to a metal loop on the wall behind him.
“I don’t know what you expect to get out of him, I don’t think he can talk, and he’s got the best poker face I’ve ever seen,” the officer said and the second one chuckled.
“Thank you officers. That’ll do,” the Doctor said. The two turned to leave the room, but just before the door closed, the Doctor caught it and said, “Oh, and when my delivery arrives, please have someone bring it in.”
The officer shut the door, leaving the Doctor and Pandora alone with the faceless man. The Doctor sat down at the table, folding his hands in front of him.
“My name’s the Doctor. What may I call you?” he asked. As he expected, he got no response. The creature continued to try to free his arms from the straightjacket.
The Doctor unzipped his hoodie and pulled out his sonic and a cell phone that Pandora didn’t recognize. He placed them both on the table between himself and the creature, then he hit the power button on the phone. The lock screen came up showing a young couple in a hot air balloon. They were both wearing sunglasses and their faces were close together for a quick selfie on a romantic outing. Even with the sunglasses and without the distorted faces, Pandora could recognize the couple, mostly because of the blonde hair piled high.
She leaned in close to the Doctor, whispering, “I can’t believe you nicked their phone.”
“I... acquired it while we were on the ambulance. I knew I’d need a way to contact them later.” The Doctor pointed his sonic at the phone and it unlocked. He quickly looked through the contacts list and recent texts, then he returned his attention to the faceless man.
“Is it alright if I call you Steve then?” He held up the phone displaying the photo from the contact card titled ‘Husband’. “That is you, isn’t it? Or at least the person you are pretending to be? Got it a bit wrong about the face though, here,” he said circling the entire face area. The creature didn’t react to the name or the phone. He never pointed his ‘face’ toward it, he just continued to pull at the jacket, trying to get enough slack to pull an arm up his sleeve.
The Doctor gave up on the phone and set it down, picking up the sonic instead. He pointed it at the creature and examined him. He got up from the table and went to stand next to it, bent down close and activated the sonic again. Still no response. “Curious,” the Doctor said and returned to his chair.
“Did you learn something?” Pandora asked.
“Well, it’s obvious he can’t see or hear. I know you’re thinking of course not, he hasn’t got eyes or ears, but you’d be surprise how little of a liability that can sometimes be. But I would have expected some reaction. And the examination showed that he’s got the holes in his skull associated with ears and nose, just no external organs. Nothing for the eyes or mouth, just solid bone across both.”
“That’s something I’ve been wondering,” Pandora said. “Without nostrils or a mouth, how does he breath?”
“In my experience, the people who ask questions like that rarely want to actually know the answers. Let’s go with the best case scenario - he doesn’t need to.”
There was a knock on the door moments before it opened. The Doctor and Pandora reflexively looked toward it, but the creature gave no sign it was aware of any change to his surroundings. One of the officers from before came in carrying a white paper bag.
“Ah, thank you so much, Dodson,” the Doctor said, accepting it from him. The Doctor opened the bag and pulled out a thermos bottle. Officer Dodson left the room again, closing the door behind himself.
“Yunjin Kwon of Upminster,” the Doctor said, holding up the thermos. “Makes the finest kimchi in London.”
“You come all the way out to Upminster to get kimchi?” Pandora asked.
“That’s not so far, I used to go out all the way to Caldrasa Six to get popadums,” he said. He twisted open the thermos, and immediately the interrogation room filled with the unique pungent odor of well-fermented kimchi cabbage. Pandora pulled a face and backed away. The Doctor waved the thermos in front of the faceless creature, but it neither pulled away, nor reacted in any other way.
“We’ve already established he doesn’t have a nose. How did you expect him to smell?”
The Doctor set the thermos on the table and screwed the lid on tightly before answering. “I’m resisting the urge to say, ‘Terrible’.”
He sighed. “Well, that’s sight, sound and smell out of the way. There are certain creatures in this vast universe that communicate only via taste, but I don’t intend to introduce myself by inserting a finger anywhere. All that’s left is touch, and they definitely react to that.”
He pushed the table slowly forward until it touched the creature’s abdomen. The creature instantly reacted, pushing out his chest and thrashing more violently, but the Doctor put his weight into the table and kept it firmly in contact with the creature until it calmed down. He released the pressure tentatively, but kept the contact, then when the thrashing didn’t start back up, he flipped his sonic around and set it tip down on the metal table. He turned to Pandora and said, “Just like I can set the inner-ear bones vibrating to recreate a human voice, I can turn this table into a resonator. Let’s see how he reacts to different patterns of vibration. We may be able to set up a basis for communication.”
With that, he turned on his sonic. The table vibrated hard enough to scoot slowly along the floor. The creature reacted violently, standing up and pushing the table forward. He lunged toward the Doctor, coming to the limits of his chain, and began thrashing about. The Doctor and Pandora got to their feet and backed up as the creature kicked at the table. The Doctor scooped up the phone just before it went flying, while the thermos tipped and rolled off the table, clattering to the floor.
The creature backed up and ran forward again and again. The loop of fabric holding the chain in place ripped free, and simultaneously, the creature got one arm loose enough to pull it back and over his head. The Doctor got between the creature and Pandora and backed her into a corner.
The creature charged, seemingly blindly, but directly at them. Half way through his charge, the door to the room burst open, and he slammed into it instead of them.
Two officers ran into the room wielding clubs. One swung low and took out the back of the creature’s knee, forcing it to a kneeling position. The second officer grabbed him by the neck and forced him to the ground and put a knee in the small of his back.
The Doctor grabbed Pandora’s hand and led her quickly out of the room. They nearly ran into the police captain in the hallway. “Just what the hell was that?” she demanded, arms folded across her chest.
“Just trying to set up a basis for communication. I didn’t expect such a violent reaction,” the Doctor said.
“Well, some job you did too! If that creature can figure out a way to file a complaint against Interpol, my officers will happily take it. I want your whole group out of my station.”
Blaise joined them, and the three were escorted out of the building. “You can keep the kimchi!” the Doctor called to the closing door.
“What next?” Blaise asked.
“We split up. Their reaction to any sense of touch is violence. What if the first thing they are supposed to do when they get here is to kill their double and take their place? We still have five Faceless unaccounted for.” He handed the victim’s phone to Pandora. “I want you to go to their home and make sure they’re okay.”
“What will you be doing?” Pandora asked, taking the phone.
The Doctor sighed heavily. “I have no other choice left. There is no basis for communication with these creatures in their assumed form. If I’m to talk to them, it isn’t going to happen here. I have to meet them on their home turf. I’m heading back to the faire, pulling back that tape and finding a way through.”
Pandora’s face went white. “Doctor, how can you risk-”
The Doctor took her by the hands and said quietly, “I have to. Who knows what those other five are doing right now. And they’ll eventually find another way to our dimension if they haven’t already. At this point I don’t even know if I want to stop them. What if their world is dying, and our world is their only escape?”
“You mean, our world, right?” Blaise said, coming to stand next to Pandora.
“What?” the Doctor asked.
“Pandora said you’re an alien. I don’t know where you’re from, but it isn’t here, and you’re offering our world to another alien race.”
“That’s not fair Blaise,” Pandora said.
“More to the point, it’s incorrect. I’m not giving them forty acres and a mule, I’m talking about rescuing a dying species and finding a place for them later. But either way, it’s hypothetical until I discover the reasons behind all this.
“You can get their address from the phone’s contact info. You’ll have to check with the hospital for the other victims. Once you know they’re safe, call me.” With that, the Doctor left them.
Pandora and Blaise weaved their way through the housing development until, in late evening, Pandora stopped in front of one particular suburban two-story Tudor-esqe house with a tree out front and an attached garage.
“This it?” Blaise asked.
Pandora double-checked the number against the address on the cell phone. “That’s the one.” She turned off the phone and put it in her jacket pocket. “Let’s go,” she said and approached the door.
She lifted the knocker, then paused. The door was slightly ajar. She looked back at Blaise, and pushed on the door with one finger. It slowly and smoothly opened, stopping gently when it it touched the doorstop.
They peered into the dark hallway, then looked back at the rest of the neighborhood where lights had come on in all the houses hours ago.
“We should call the Doctor,” Pandora said.
“No,” Blaise said, pushing past her. “What if something bad happened while we waited?” He started off down the hallway, then turned and looked back at her.
Pandora stood in the doorway. Her right hand absently came up to touch the spot near her temple where she’d had a clump of hair ripped out earlier in the day. She swallowed hard and tentatively stepped into the hallway.
She found the light switch and flipped it up, but no lights came on. She toggled it on and off several times, but nothing happened.
“Hey,” Blaise whispered to her. Pandora looked over to find him pointing up. She looked up to see the light fixture on the ceiling, bulbs missing. “And then there’s this,” he said, pointing at a hole in the wall, wires exposed.
Blaise turned and walked into the kitchen, Pandora hurried to catch up. Blaise found a knife block and removed the biggest one. Pandora let out a slight gasp and he turned.
“Please don’t stab anyone. I can’t stand blood.”
“I won’t,” he said, hiding it away by his side. “It’s just for show... In case.”
Pandora pulled a half frown, then looked around the rest of the room. There was a cooktop island in the middle of the room and a small breakfast nook on the other side. Both had lighting hanging above them, but all the bulbs had been removed. The microwave and toaster had been gutted, and the dishwasher and refrigerator were pulled out from the counter and stripped. Similarly there was an electric can opener sitting in pieces on the table in the breakfast nook.
“No signs of blood,” Blaise whispered. “No broken glass.”
Pandora glanced around to verify his conclusion, then took out her cell phone. She switched on the flashlight app and held it out in front of her, walking from room to room. In the dining room, there was a small pendulum clock, smashed and dissected. In the family room, the television was lying on the floor with the backing off, parts strewn about. She headed back into the hallway and pointed the beam of the cell phone’s camera flash upstairs. She jumped when she found Blaise at her side.
“I’ll go first,” he whispered, and started up the stairs. Pandora followed cautiously, hyper-aware of every creak they made on the stairs.
The upstairs was in a similar state to the ground floor. In the bathroom, the electric toothbrushes and shaver had been taken apart, and the fluorescent tubes running along either side of the bathroom mirror were empty. In the bedroom, it was the bedside alarm clock, the television and the display from the elliptical machine. There were holes in the walls again but there were no bodies or other signs of violence.
“That’s it, I’m calling the Doctor,” Pandora whispered. She pulled her phone out of her bag and rang him up quickly, but it went to voicemail. Normally, she would have just hung up, but this time she felt she had to leave a message. “Doctor, it’s Pandora. We’re at Steve and Jessica’s house, but they’re not home, the door was open, and the place is wrecked. Everything electronic has been ripped apart. I think they’ve been taken -”
“Hey!” Blaise called. He was standing by the window, looking out the back.
“Just call me back, Doctor,” Pandora said and hung up the phone. “What is it?” she asked Blaise.
“I saw something. A light. It was out there past those trees.” She came over to join him at the window. She could see the dark shape of the trees just past the backyard fence, but no lights.
“It looked like a shower of sparks or something,” he continued. “There it is again!” he said, pointing.
That time she saw it. “What’s out that way?” she asked.
“Cranham Marsh, I think,” Blaise said. “I bet it’s related.”
“I’m starting not to believe in coincidence,” Pandora said.
“Let’s go,” Blaise said. By the time Pandora turned away from the window, he was half way down the stairs.
The two went out through the back door and through the yard, over the fence and across a field. They slowed down and crouched low when they approached the tree line. They were now seeing flashes of light from multiple directions, but all beyond the tree line. They could hear the sounds of tools and of electricity arcing.
They crept through the underbrush and peeked between some branches. More than a dozen figures, their faces and bodies thoroughly distorted, were working, constructing some large curved device. One was pounding metal into shape, another two were welding pieces together. The rest were sorting pieces, ferrying them to their final location and connecting them up. It wasn’t obvious what they were putting together, but it was enormous.
It looked as if the completed artifact would be a circle, a meter high and a hundred meters around. Light bulbs of all sorts lit the interior of the curve with no sign of a power source.
“How did there get to be so many of them?” Pandora asked, a little louder than she’d have liked. “I thought you taped it down when there were just seven of them?”
“I did,” Blaise said, but Pandora looked at him skeptically. “I swear I did!”
Pandora nodded and went back to watching them. “What’s that noise?” she asked. “Not the tools, or the welding, but that... clicking sound?”
Blaise turned his head slightly to listen. “Oh, yeah. I didn’t hear it at first. It’s like... insects or something.”
“Oh, my god, is that them... talking?”
The two crouched there in silence, watching the group work, until Pandora turned around and sat with her back against a tree.
“What would you do if you suddenly lost all your senses? But not just your senses, your face, your very identity?” She looked up at Blaise to be sure he was listening. “You’d cling to whatever you could. You couldn’t scream, you couldn’t cry, you’d be frantic. You’d be filled with adrenaline, but absolutely impotent. If you felt a hand - another human being... Your entire world would be that connection, and you would do anything to hold onto it.”
“In other words,” Blaise said, catching on, “you’d act just like the Faceless.”
Pandora nodded silently, looking up at Blaise with worry in her eyes. “What if we got it backwards, and these are the invaders, and the Faceless are the victims?”
“I think you might be right. These guys sure aren’t acting human.”
Suddenly Pandora heard a new noise, and her head snapped up. It was a unique noise, and one she was very familiar with. She went deadly pale and spun around to look at the group again.
A new figure had joined the group, its face elongated, with dirty blonde hair, tiny eyes and a long nose over a square jaw. He had long upper-arms and a strong barrel chest, but very short abdomen and upper-legs. His lower-arms and legs were barely even there, but he was instantly recognizable in his grey hoodie and khaki cargo pants. The sound she’d heard was the sonic screwdriver he was using to help the distorted figures assemble their device.
One of those things had replicated the Doctor.