5. The Stranger

Skylark

Sunday, January 3rd, 2010

This evening around 6:30 Buzz and I took our first walk in what seemed like years. There was a flurry of snow and the familiar trumpeting of elephant seals played on the wind, so I had a bit of a spring in my step, and I thanked the universe for taking me off its shit list, at least for the day. I brought along a some bacon that I had folded in a napkin, and as we walked I nibbled and shared some pieces with Buzz.

We headed down into the valley to the Array. The dishes were packed with snow, so I figured there was a fuse blown or a short at the terminal because each dish is equipped with its own defroster.

At the bottom, I checked the box at the ARC and found a spent fuse, which I unscrewed and pocketed, then replaced it with a spare and locked the box and the access door to the terminal.

Suddenly Buzz started barking. But before I could even turn my head, I heard a colossal thunder clap—so loud I ducked—and when I looked up, a giant ball of flaming death was screaming through the atmosphere. I sucked in a breath, backpedaled, and shouted at Buzz to run. But it wouldn’t matter. An instant later the meteor rocketed over my head, the heat from its tail singing my clothes, and slammed into the ice, obliterating dish 20 in a great plume of smoke and white powder.

Once I could breathe normally again, I immediately retracted my earlier pleasantries to the stupid universe, sighed, and hustled over to investigate.

Retrograde

Monday, January 4th, 2010

Dish #20 is, or I guess, was, located at the southern end of the Y-shaped radio telescope Array, which, given the size and spread of the configuration, was about a 30 minute hike from the ARC terminal. When Buzz and I finally reached the impact site, we found what was left of D20 strewn over the ice in tiny, mangled fragments, save a sizable chunk of the metallic collector which had partially melted into the surface, forming a hard blob of blackened aluminum.

Telders was going to be pissed.

I stepped carefully toward the crater, Buzz lingering behind. It was probably 30 feet in diameter, but much neater than I expected, considering the massive fireball that nearly took off my head half an hour before. The flames were fully extinguished—no smoke, steam, or cinders to speak of—and it appeared as if the thing just dropped straight in and stuck there, as opposed to crashing and tumbling and carving out a wide swath of destruction like any good meteorite should.

I peered over the edge. Taking the place of the $500,000 antenna was an oblong, dull, gray thing, dusted with fresh Antarctic snow. I scratched my head and reached in my pocket for the last slice of bacon.

“That’s no meteorite,” I told Buzz, and snapped off a piece of the cold meat. I chewed it up, swallowed, and tore off another chunk and tossed it to the husky, but he barely acknowledged it.

“Alright, then,” I shrugged, and bent over to retrieve a short, narrow scrap of twisted metal from the destroyed antenna. I tapped it in my glove like a baton. “Be right back.”

The husky whimpered as I turned and stepped into the hole with a crunch.

Anterograde

Tuesday, January 5th, 2010

The entire surface of the crater was slathered in some kind of translucent orange and red flecked goo, almost exactly the color and consistency of orange marmalade, and the ice beneath it was packed incredibly dense and perfectly smooth, as if it had been exposed to  serious, unearthly pressures—perhaps tens of thousands of atmospheres. I’d never seen anything like it. It was slippery as hell, but oddly, the goo added some traction as I inched down the slope.

As I descended, I focused on the gray hulk in the center of the crater. From what I could tell, the object was about 10 or 15 feet in length and the surface was lumpy and indistinct. I could feel my heart beating a little faster as I got closer and  I unconsciously hastened my pace. Further into the hole it was noticeably warmer and more comfortable, and the air was thicker, like it was hugging me as I moved. I picked up speed, and before I knew it I was sliding in the goo, skiing it it, and suddenly I felt I could breathe easier and deeper than ever before, and with each inhalation I felt lighter and more energetic, and the next thing I knew I was laughing and sprinting down the slope, running, sliding, slipping, my arms pinwheeling… and then without warning I reached the floor of the crater, slipped backward, and watched in slow motion as one of my legs whipped up in front of me, and then the other, followed by a brief moment of weightless bliss… and then I collapsed neck first on top of myself.

However, instead of shattering my spine, or cracking my skull open, or suffering any kind of pain or discomfort in the least, the marmalade goo grabbed me, hugged me, fully absorbing the shock in a warm, delightful embrace, then let go and my body came to rest against the floor without a scratch.

I laid there for a while, as the strange high wore off, then propped myself up, sat up, covered with the goop, and shook my hands and bushed it from my arms and legs; it sloughed off easily. I poked at the goo, and smacked it with an open hand. It absorbed the blow, then relaxed. I punched it a few times, harder and harder, and felt nothing more than the wind on my fist, then the grip of the slime as it somehow obviated the force. Weird.

I got to my feet and crossed the distance of the crater to the center, my head still very muddled, and without thinking, reached up laid my hands on the gray hulk. Suddenly, the surface immediately below my palms cracked and spidered, and before I could even shift my weight, a massive explosion blew me backward into darkness.

God’s cursor

Wednesday, January 6th, 2010

I was only out for a second or two. The force of the blast was tremendous, but even though I landed at least 15 meters away, the orange goo that covered the crater’s interior absorbed the shock of my fall and most likely prevented me from playing dinner buffet to a flock of skuas. I licked my lips. Blood.

Removing my gloves, I lightly patted my face and found at least a dozen lacerations. My jacket and pants were perforated with hundreds of tiny cuts, and I could feel the sharp pain of little cuts on my legs, but not so much on my upper body. I wiped my face on my sleeve, drawing a deep swath of crimson, and stood up, cringing.

In the distance, what was a gray, lumpy hulk was now a shiny, black hulk. I paused briefly, mouth agape, then, ignoring the pain in my legs, broke into a sprint toward the object.

I slipped and skated on the ice, the orange goo pushing back against my momentum, and when I reached the thing, I fell down and slid to a stop in front of it. The indistinct shell that had cracked and exploded was gone, leaving no fragments or debris anywhere, and in its place was a tall, heavy looking, huge, unbelievable, triangular-ish, ship. A space ship. I was staring at a space ship.

The vessel was easily twice my height, and it was pointing straight down, its sharp nose embedded a full meter into the ice, like some kind of giant-sized, alien lawn dart. The dorsal and ventral sides of the ship were smooth and flat, except for one small, ovular vent on each side, and the sides sliced away from the nose in a broad, rounded arc, accompanied by two rows of rectangular vents, then tapered slightly toward the rear of the ship which, because of the height of the thing, I couldn’t see.

There were no sounds, vibrations, lights or any indication of activity or life coming from the thing. It was cold and quiet.

I took my phone out and started snapping pictures. In the distance, Buzz started barking hysterically.

Dog whistle

Thursday, January 7th, 2010

“Calm down, Buzz,” I snapped at my husky as I reached the top of the crater and shuffled past him. He barked and ran ahead of me, protesting furiously.

I bent down to scratch his chin. “It’s ok,” I said. But he persisted. I turned my head and squinted at the ship in the distance. “What the hell do you see that I don’t?”

The triangular vessel remained still and quiet, wedged nose first in the ice like a giant arrowhead.

I stood up, shaking my head. “C’mon,” I demanded, stepping around him. “We’re gonna open that thing.”

Have a tranq on me

Friday, January 8th, 2010

Buzz followed me out of the valley and back to the station, barking incessantly, even after we got inside. I stood there in the office, frowning at him as he squatted on his big hind legs, his eyes bulging with fury and warning, his jaws snapping mindlessly.

I couldn’t imagine how he could go on much longer, but I figured he would tire out on his own, so I tried to ignore the noise as I gathered some heavy tools in a bag, slung a coil of rope around my shoulder, and grabbed the keys to the snowcat.

Buzz bolted between my legs and tried to block the side door, but I threw a leg against him and swung it open, trapping him between the door and the wall. He protested fiercely, his voice becoming weak and raspy, but he strained and shoved and managed to slip outside after me. I stumbled as the husky rammed me in the legs.

“Enough!” I shouted.

There was no way I could bring him along in this condition. I had a few more things to get, then I would drop the equipment off at the snowcat, take Buzz inside, and lock him in the dog run.

He tailed me into the storehouse where I filled the bag up with a few more things, watching him out of the corner of my eye, then locked up and headed back out. I walked behind the science station to the shed where we kept the snowcat and unfastened the latch, when Buzz suddenly lurched forward and sunk his teeth into my calf.

I howled in pain, and smacked the dog with the coil of rope until he relented. It wasn’t as hard as he could have bitten, but I’d had enough. From my tool bag I produced a tranq gun, flipped the safety off, and plugged the husky with a vial of diazepam. He fought it well, but his legs gave out and he was out cold in under twenty seconds.

I picked him up and carried him to the dog run, gave him a few strokes, and locked the door. Back outside, I loaded the snowcat up with the equipment, cranked the ignition, and rumbled down into the valley.

Extraction

Saturday, January 9th, 2010

I maneuvered the snowcat into the valley and perched it atop the impact crater, the triangular ship looming in the distance, still stuck nose first into the ice. I killed the engine and reloaded the tranquilizer gun with a fresh vial of diazepam. What the hell did Buzz sense down there?

I sat in the cab for a while, staring at the ship and the remains of dish 20 through the dirty windshield. Whatever it was, if it wasn’t from around here, the tranq would probably just piss it off. I stroked the hammer on the Taurus .357 in the holster on my belt, then started the engine and pitched the snowcat over the edge.

The machine grumbled down the slope of the crater, the orange goo providing good traction, easily managing the slick surface of the densely packed ice. At the bottom I steered the cat around the ship and backed it up to within 20 feet of its position, got out, and grabbed the rope. I rounded the ship, looking for a loophole or hard edge of any kind, but the surface of the craft was far too smooth. I crouched down on the ice, thinking for a moment, then drew out a length of rope and fashioned a slip-knot. Holding the lasso in hand, I swung it around a few times above my head, then released. The rope slid over the ship and came to rest on the ice, about a meter above the buried nose. I tied the rope to the back of the cat, hopped in the cab, and slowly pulled forward until the rope was taut. Then I backed up a few inches, then got out and using the blunt end of a metal spear from the cat, shoved the rope about ten feet up the side of the ship so it was tight against the exterior. Then I hopped back in the cab, double checked the tranq gun, my sidearm, took a deep breath, then hit the gas.

The snowcat lurched forward, the engine straining, then suddenly the ice cracked and popped, and the ship came crashing down with a surprisingly quiet thud. I leaped out and circled the felled craft with the tranq in my left hand and the Taurus in the other. The rear of the ship was visible, flat and smooth like the rest of the exterior, with the exception of a large circular depression, roughly 3 feet in diameter, and flanked by a couple dozen tiny holes, each about the size of my little finger. There was no visible latch, handle, switch, lever, keypad, dial, or fastener of any kind. I kicked the hatch with my boot and backed up. There was no way I was getting this thing open down there.

I eyed the snowcat, and its thick steel sled, then removed the rope, and turned it around. The ship was only about 12 feet long. I wedged the sled underneath the ship and gave it a little gas. The engine purred and the craft slid forward on the ice with almost no effort. I pushed the thing up the side of the impact crater, out of the valley, and back to the station.

Red letter day

Sunday, January 10th, 2010

I’ve got a knife wound in my left shoulder and a dead man on the floor.

I had expected to spend some quality time this evening with my oxygen/acetylene cutting torch and the seemingly impervious hull of the mysterious space craft that obliterated dish #20 of my radio telescope array, but alas, things never go as planned these days, especially around 18:57:09, which is exactly when the man who is now lying on the storehouse floor with a five-inch window in his chest burst into the room with a 10″ survival knife and murder in his eyes, screaming: “It began here! It began here!”

Normally I would have given the man an audience, no matter how crazy he sounded, but I think it was probably the foot-long Rambo knife in his hand that forced me to draw the Taurus .357 holstered at my waist, but not before the man lunged and sank the blade deep into my left shoulder. I recoiled, staggering, as he ripped the knife out of my flesh and cocked his arm for another go, but I managed to find the handle on my sidearm and dropped the bastard with a click. He didn’t even make a sound. His eyes went dead, his body froze, and he slumped backward, the knife clattering on the concrete floor.

My arm was bleeding like crazy. I kept pressure on the wound and tore open the first aid kit, but gauze and band-aids weren’t going to do a goddamn thing. I spun around, frantically, ribbons of blood spilling onto the floor, and suddenly eyed the acetylene torch. Snarling, I grabbed the striker, turned on the oxygen, and ignited it. I found a small crowbar on the rack and waved it under the torch until it glowed bright orange.

Clenching my teeth, I took a deep breath, and shoved it in the wound.

Shit

Monday, January 11th, 2010

I awoke to the sound of myself howling in pain and the smell of cooked meat. Beside me, the crowbar still glowed faintly.

I got to my knees.

The hatch to the ship was open. And the dead body was gone.

Awakenings

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

I scanned the storehouse with the .357 as I got to my feet and edged toward the spacecraft’s open hatch. The storehouse’s barn doors were shut, as I had left them, and a trail of blood from where the dead man had laid drew a path to the main entrance, then disappeared underneath the closed door. I cursed under my breath as I backed up against the ship, having bumped my left shoulder against the hull. I shook it off, took a few short, sharp breaths, then spun around, pointing the Taurus into the craft’s interior.

I immediately buckled and stumbled backward, dropping the gun. The stench was unbelievable. Coughing, I covered my nose with my hand, then started vomiting through my fingers. I staggered away, bent over, trying to keep from puking all over myself. The heaving persisted until there was nothing left, but I continued to gag and my stomach lurched, and I held onto a rack and spit and wheezed until I settled enough to clear my mouth, then I dug into my coat for my scarf and started to wipe my face, trying not to breathe through my nose.

Suddenly there was a noise outside the door. I turned, quickly scanning the storehouse for a place to hide. There was no where else to go. The door handle turned. I clenched my teeth, clamped my scarf over my mouth, sprinted toward the putrid spaceship, ducked down, and leapt through the hatch.

I landed on my left shoulder and howled into the scarf, writhing on the floor, and immediately started heaving. The interior of the ship was filled with trash and a sticky green residue that covered the floor and smelled of corpses. I sucked in a breath and turned away to find a large window that somehow wasn’t visible from the outside. I could see the storehouse perfectly. And then I watched, gagging, as the storehouse door swung open. From that angle I could see nothing more than an arm—a green, sinewy arm—holding the door.

I turned my head, suddenly remembering my gun. There is was, outside the ship, six or seven feet from the hatch. I cursed through my teeth. Idiot.

The door stayed open and the arm that held it remained, unmoving. I waited, watching, my stomach an incessant spasm, my heart pounding in my left shoulder, and in my face, and my arms and legs, and every other goddamn wound in my body. I glanced at the gun, then back to the door…. I took a few conservative breaths and strained to keep myself from puking. Six or seven feet wasn’t that far. I could easily get out and grab the gun before it reached me. I shifted quietly inside the cramped ship, turned my body around, and tensed—ready to leap.

Then, suddenly, without a sound, whatever it was withdrew its arm, and the door lazily swung backward on its spring… then clicked shut.

Fish out of water

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

I scrambled out of the hatch, snatched the gun from the floor, and crossed the space between the ship and the door in seconds. Leveling the weapon, I fired a shot through the center of the door, wrenched the thing open, and barreled out into the snow. Nothing. A swath of blood painted a trail to the left and around the edge of the storehouse. I followed it. I backed up against the wall, gun raised, and snap-checked the corner. Frowning, I looked again, casually this time. There, surrounded by bloody, strewn clothing, was a large, fresh hump of snow. I lowered the Taurus and stepped toward the mound, nudging the dead man’s bloody white oxford with my boot. The creature had buried him. What the hell for? And why without his clothes?

Then there was a crash—broken glass. And barking. Buzz was awake. I bolted around the corner and sprinted through the falling snow to the main building. The door was open. I ducked through it, my boots pounding on the wooden floors in the hallway, and turned the corner to the rec room. Buzz was going crazy. Another crash. Downstairs. I hit the steps full bore, gun in hand, and followed the sounds down the hallway to the science laboratory.

I kicked the door in. The creature jumped. An armful of beakers and chemicals and test tubes crashed to the floor. I raised the .357.

“What the fuck are you!?” I shouted, the Taurus shaking in my right hand.

It shrieked, backpedaling, and whipped its head around searching the room for an exit or an option.

I cocked the gun. “Don’t move.”

The creature was humanoid, at least seven feet tall, with green sinewy skin like I had seen in the storehouse, and a fucking head like a fish. A fish. I sneered at it.

“Do you understand me?”

It sniffed, two quick sniffs, and glared back at me, as if my scent contained some amount of that understanding… and it didn’t like it.

I fired a shot over the creature’s shoulder. It yelped and sprang backward, crashing into the shelves, and raised its arms for a shield as more glass spilled on top of his freakish head.

“Last chance,” I snarled, stepping forward and lowering the barrel toward his chest.

It stared up at me, with its solid black, unblinking eyes, and spoke in a gurgling, high pitched voice: “I am a nothing. Only Spegg.”

I dropped the gun.

Lure

Thursday, January 14th, 2010

Spegg recoiled from the gun as it clattered on the concrete floor.

“Saiyaku!” He scowled, then his ghastly, giant fish lips rolled back and he spit a glob of white paste at the pistol. “Get that terrible thing away from me.”

I paused, tilting my head, then stepped on the gun and inched it toward him.

“Gah,” Spegg protested, batting his translucent green arms in the direction of the weapon.

I slid the gun back and bent over cautiously to collect it. I wasn’t sure what to make of the thing in front of me, much less the fact that he had no business being here, some 650 million light years from the source of the transmission, and 176 years in the past.

In the transmissions I received, the pilot of the ship, Maxim Akihiko Broussad, called Spegg violent, dangerous… a saboteur. And he further instructed anyone who came into contact with him to “dissolve” him.

But I didn’t get it. Spegg took the time to bury a dead man, then backed away, terrified, of a weapon well within his grasp. He didn’t seem too friendly, but he didn’t seem dangerous or violent. He looked scared. Almost childlike.

I took a leap of faith and holstered the pistol. “Let me help you up,” I said, and extended my hand.

Spegg took it. He got up, and with a ear-splitting shriek, yanked me forward and drove his elbow into my skull. Stunned, I collapsed into the broken glass. Spegg leaped on me and dug a knee in my chest.

“Chikushou,” he sneered, and closed his icy hand around my throat. I struggled, but his grip was strong, and his wicked, bulging, black eyes were the last thing I saw before I lurched into darkness.

The stranger

Saturday, January 16th, 2010

The stranger within my gate,
He does not talk my talk—
I cannot feel his mind.
I see the face and the eyes and the mouth,
But not the soul behind.
—Rudyard Kipling

My clothes were wet. I opened my eyes and winced as sweat poured in and stung my corneas. The room was insanely hot. I wiped my face on my shirt and glowered at the row of bars between myself and the rest of the science lab. I was trapped in one of the reinforced steel dog cages we used for the huskies. The door of the cage had been welded shut and lying immediately in front of the cage on the floor was the cock-eyed body of an adult leopard seal. I bent forward, frowning. Spegg was on the far side of the room.

“Gah! Primitive garbage,” he growled, shoving a spectroscope onto the floor. He kicked away the busted, loose pieces and moved a wide, black, rectangular case onto one of the lab tables. I didn’t recognize it, so I assumed it was from his ship. With a grunt, he swiped his hand over the top and it sprung open. I sat up for a better view and bumped my head on the top of the cage.

“Nani?” Spegg chirped, wheeling around. In his right hand he held a long, silver tube. He shuffled over and bent down in front of the cage, his thick, meaty lips twisted into a grotesque, W-shaped grin, twirling the shiny instrument between his pencil-like fingers.

“What the hell is that?” I said, and backed up as far as I could in the cage, which was only about ten inches.

He didn’t answer. Gripping the cylinder like a ball point pen, he clicked the end with his bony thumb and a mass of worm like needles slithered out, undulating hypnotically at the tip. I swallowed and Spegg started laughing, a warbling, high pitched chortle that forced me to grab my ears.

“Why so jumpy?” he sneered, then cocked his arm.

My heart lurched, the silver device flashed in his hand, and he stabbed the instrument downward. Suddenly the seal roared and its body convulsed as Spegg twisted and prodded the device into its neck. Its howling quickly degraded into desperate shrieks, it’s massive tail pounding the floor, its bulbous nose quivering and spewing blood.

Spegg grinned a row of tiny pointed teeth at me as he held the seal down, shouldering the instrument further into its flesh. The seal’s power faded fast—its protests grew feeble and helpless, the shrieking lessening into cries… whimpers… then dull, guttural moans, and finally the seal stopped moving altogether and there was nothing but the ghastly sound of fluids and tissue as Spegg continued to jerk the device around in its neck. My mouth hung open in horror and disbelief.

Spegg removed the instrument and retracted the motionless needles back into the tube’s chamber. He got up to go, but paused, then knelt back down and peered into my cage.

“Don’t worry,” he said, leaning closer, his giant, black eyes reflecting the thick columns of reinforced steel. “You’re next.”

Next: Chapter 6. Incarceration