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albertnothlit

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albertnothlit last won the day on May 26 2016

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3,151 You Wish You Were Me

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About albertnothlit

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    Cool Member

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  • Age in Years
    31
  • Gender
    Male
  • Sexuality
    Gay
  • Favorite Genres
    Sci-Fi
  • Interests
    Sci-fi, fantasy, LGBT-friendly fiction, videogames, traveling, learning new languages.

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  1. Good observation, Will, thank you! And yeah, chipmunks are right up there too, though I do find them cuter, not sure why.
  2. albertnothlit

    Keep Quiet

    Thank you so much, drsawzall!
  3. I love spinning mysteries, and I think part of that is because I have always enjoyed reading mysteries myself. When I do, there's always this struggle I go through where I want to read ahead so the author reveals what's going on, but I also want to figure things out in my own. (Most of the time I just read ahead - I'm not that good at guessing as a reader!)
  4. albertnothlit

    The Bolide

    Thank you! I also love space, but in my case, my fascination is also tempered by really big what ifs. There might be dangers out there that we don't even suspect exist. And yet the more we learn about the cosmos, the more my fascination grows.
  5. albertnothlit

    Prologue

    Thank you for the compliment, Will! I do love that era, and the language of the time holds a certain draw that I just couldn't resist using
  6. Thank you for your comment, Will! I wonder what Mr. Holmes would say if presented with such a mystery. I have a feeling it might involve a lot of telling poor Mr. Watson cryptic things with disturbingly accurate perceptiveness.
  7. albertnothlit

    Keep Quiet

    Thank you, drpaladin! It was awesome to hear your feedback after each and every chapter, and I am very grateful for the fact that you shared your wonderful insight with me as the story progressed. It was, for me at least, a relatively short but fun journey and I enjoyed the process immensely. As I was writing the story, I could not help but think that, if alien life one day comes to us instead of us finding it, it is extremely likely that we might misunderstand one another somehow since we will be so different from one another. The differences might be such that contact might harm one or both of us, humans and aliens alike. Or we might be completely unable to communicate. The good aliens in this story sent a messenger with good intentions, but in attempting to communicate, the messenger brought about horror, death, and its ultimate demise at the hands of the very beings it was trying to warn. I'm a sucker for happy endings, though, whenever I can get away with them, and so I leave the door open at the end of the story for, as you say, a possible future. Thank you so much! -Albert
  8. albertnothlit

    Keep Quiet

    It is nighttime now and the world panics. The floating cylinder opened for the first time and a smaller object shot out from it, evading the fighter planes that tried to intercept it, heading for a destination unknown. But that is not all. Observatories around the world report seeing large unidentified objects, spherical in shape, approaching the Earth from the blackness of space. They are moving very fast and it is all but certain that they will collide with our planet in the next few hours. Some think they may be ships. They are not ships, but bombs. They are a message in the sky, clear for those who know how to interpret it. The fiery trails which these unidentified objects leave in their wake look almost beautiful, like the tails of comets glowing in the night. And yet I know differently. They spell out not beauty doom for humanity, they foretell our extinction. I suppose it is time to leave my house for the last time. My bad knee will have to hold out for a few hours. I can no longer stay inside, not now. Even though those objects will still take hours or maybe days to reach us, something else is here already. Just outside my building, in fact. I can see a strange and horribly familiar alien glow, green and gold, shining through my windows. I think I can guess where the smaller object which came out of the floating cylinder was headed for. It came for me. I can hear people outside on the street. They are screaming. The alien glow is getting brighter. I have glanced out the window just now, and so I know. It is hovering in the sky just outside, motionless and silent, so very bright. Its brightness is not uniform. It pulsates at regular intervals, repeating its message again and again and again. It is Morse code, of course. Why? Why does this alien vessel know Morse code? And why does it repeat the same seven letters over and over and over again? D-A-N-N-Y-T-K Always the same message. It is the same message I saw days and days ago, projected horribly on the surface of the moon. Only now it is here, inescapable. D-A-N-N-Y-T-K. ‘Danny, They know. Danny, They know.’ I need to go out. I need to go out and see… *** I ran after Charles. He headed straight down to the basement and so I did the same, heedless of how much noise I made, the only thought in my mind being the fact that I wanted to know the true depth of the horror which had arrived to this accursed location on the night of the bolide explosion and which had ultimately led to this crisis. I diverted from my path only at the beginning, rushing into Charles’s room and reaching under the mattress to snatch away the revolver that he still kept underneath, inside a small leather case. I needed a weapon in case the creature attacked again. I needed to feel safe. I tucked the gun into my coat and rushed down the hall as fast as I possibly could. I reached the basement in time to see Charles all the way down the hall, rattling the gate to the well. “Charles!” I shouted. “Wait!” But he either did not hear me or ignored me. He took out a keychain and unlocked the gate. I sprinted after him once more, afraid he would lock the gate behind him, but he must have been in too much of a hurry and he simply pushed the gate wide open so it slammed against the wall on the far side. Without hesitation, I saw him rush to the well. Then he jumped in. I followed as fast as I could. I kept expecting to see the thing which had attacked me jump out from a corner, but I made it all the way to the well without seeing anything out of the ordinary. Once there, I stopped in front of the large circular structure. I could not see Charles. The water was dark, as the only illumination came from the hallway behind me. Where had he gone? How deep was the well? I climbed onto its rim so I was standing above the water, looking down. It was then that I saw faint yellowish glow, not too far down, and then the glow simply… Moved away. Disappeared. Was there a passageway down there? Some sort of underwater tunnel which led somewhere else? Under normal circumstances I would have stopped to think about what I was about to do. I would have found a rope, maybe, or asked for help. These were not normal circumstances, though. I took one deep breath and jumped into the water. I was expecting cold and the fact that the water was almost hot was a bigger shock than I was prepared to face. I gasped involuntarily, letting out most of my air, and so I was forced to kick up desperately until my head breached the surface of the water. I gulped in air several times, looking down, feeling a horrible mixture of fear, confusion, and desperation. But I could not allow myself to hesitate. I breathed in deeply once more and then dived. I had never been a good swimmer, but I did not have to go too far down. I plunged into the darkness, kicking with heavy feet as I belatedly realized that I should have taken off my shoes before I jumped in. It was too late now. I used arms and legs to go further down and kept my eyes open. There! A yellow glow a couple of feet further down. I followed it, holding my breath, and bumped my head against the edge of a tunnel which branched off from the main well shaft. I kicked more fiercely and squirmed my body into the tunnel, following the light, a part of my brain screaming that I did not know where I was going and when my breath ran out, if I did not find a way out, I would drown. The tunnel was too narrow to turn around and swing back. And so I did the only thing I could, following the light, swimming desperately, trying to reach the end before my lungs gave out. The yellow light disappeared within a couple of seconds and it was then that black panic seized me. My lungs were burning. I needed to get some air. I lost one of my shoes and my shirt kept restricting the movement of my arms. The tunnel was so narrow that I could touch both sides of it if I stretched out my arms and I kept bumping my head against the top of it. The water was now uncomfortably hot. I was going to drown. Where had the light gone? A primal burst of desperation propelled my limbs forward and I used the last bit of my strength to swim. So panicked was I that I did not realize I had reached the end of the tunnel until my face collided against its slippery stone wall. I was forced to stop and I had nowhere to go. The pain in my lungs had become agony. I was beginning to see strange lights at the periphery of my vision. I could not go back, I could not go forward. Air, I needed air. I could not go to the sides. I was going to die. I could only go – Up. I glanced up and saw the golden light. I rearranged my body and kicked against the bottom of the tunnel. I surged upwards through the water and less than a second later broke through into blessed, blessed air. I choked, gasping. I coughed up water. It took me more than a minute for my head to stop spinning and for my heartbeat to attain a semblance of normalcy. I reached out with grasping hands until I found the lip of the circular shaft I was in. I dragged myself out with shaking arms and rolled onto strangely soft ground until I was lying on my back, chest heaving, struggling to fight off the panic which refused to recede entirely. I had almost drowned. I had almost drowned. It was only after my breathing slowed down that the rational part of my brain appeared to engage itself once again. Only then did I register the fact that I was looking up at the curved ceiling of what must have been a natural cave. I could see fragments of irregular rock poking through a nearly uniform cover of… Mold. Just mold, everywhere. It was all glowing with that same color. It was all around me. The glow was bright enough that it looked as though the space was flooded with the brilliance of electric lighting. I realized I knew where I was: underneath the accursed crater. I had been here once before, years ago, only then most of this place had been underwater. It was not so anymore. The air around me was hot, almost stifling, and very dry. The stench I had by now grown horribly accustomed to was pervasive, disgusting, inescapable. Rotting vegetable matter. The mold overhead swayed, rippling like algae under a gentle underwater current. I could feel a muted hum vibrating through the ground. It felt like a very large generator working, or an enormous insect buzzing away, unseen. Panic rose up in me again but I could not simply lie on the ground forever. With effort and a painful grunt, I pushed myself up to a seated position. Then I stood up, holding my head between my hands since a headache had begun to throb between my temples. Now on my feet, I looked around. I stared in naked horror. The cave had been transformed. The walls, the ceiling, the irregular rocks and the floor itself – all of it was coated by luminescing mold, but now that I was standing I saw that the mold had a structure to it. The thin strands of gently-swaying vegetable matter threaded themselves together in knots and patterns, clusters, and links between those clusters, reminding me of an impossibly macroscopic representation of living tissue. Thick columns of mold created pillars between ceiling and floor. Thinner ones spread out through the space like links in a gigantic spiderweb, and within them I could see what I could not help but think of as nuclei, circular or ellipsoidal structures floating within the tendrils and the columns, glowing. Pulsating. The entire chamber beat at the rhythm of an unseen heart. The vibration spread through the mold, like a wave, every couple of seconds. I had once seen the beating heart tissue of a frog and this reminded me of it very strongly. It felt as though I had been shrunk down and transported into the heart of a living creature. The beating was not something I could hear, but I could feel it through the soles of my feet, deeper and more rhythmical than the muted vibrations I had felt as I was lying down. Each throb commanded my attention like the echo of the suggestion of an idea. At first I could barely perceive this strange mental undercurrent, but the longer I listened, the louder the suggestion got. It was not only my body that could feel the beating of the alien heart, either. My mind could sense it in a way I had no words for, like a new sense I had no idea my brain was capable of perceiving until now. The sensation was very simple because the only thing it demanded was focus. It demanded that I look at the very center of the chamber, where a gigantic spire of living, glowing tissue rose up from the ground like a corrupted stalagmite, but bigger by far than any natural formation I had ever seen. The edges of the spire were irregular, waving, shifting. It looked like the decaying stalk of a plant that has only just sprouted, but this plant was orders of magnitude removed from any biological structure I had ever seen on my own planet. Through the throbbing echoes in my mind, I felt as though I had a distant impression of vast networks of underground roots that had tunneled through the earth over years in search of water and nutrients and energy. They had found it and the living web beneath my feet reached further than I could comprehend. It had threaded itself through the entire valley and was, even now, tunneling through the mountains, reaching, questing, hungry. Its hunger terrified me. The terror I felt upon perceiving it shattered the focus which the rhythmical beating of the tissue around me had induced in my mind, and my eyes fell for the first time on the center of the spire, at ground level. I saw an extremely complicated structure around which the spire had grown, and I knew, upon laying eyes on it, that it was the core, the nexus, of everything in this chamber and beyond. I took a hesitant step towards it. The structure resembled an upright cocoon, such as a caterpillar might make, and it was linked to the spire and to the entire chamber by thread upon thread of exquisitely delicate strands of glowing mold. It was the center of the spiderweb, the eye of the living storm all around me. It was the locus of energy and effort and hunger and… And consciousness. Another step forward. I was not sure it had been entirely taken of my own volition. I could see that the cocoon throbbed, directing the beating of the heart. Another step forward. Then another. I was closer now when I saw that the cocoon was about as tall as myself. There was someone lying prostrate on the glowing, gently-swaying ground before it. I tried to focus on the figure but my gaze was wrenched forward. All I could see was the cocoon. I needed to go to it. I needed – The figure on the ground moaned. Charles. Charles. Like one who steps awake from a dream or a trance, I suddenly came to my senses. “Charles!” I shouted, heedless of the rather violent beating of the cocoon which followed the sound of my voice. I rushed towards him and knelt beside him. I feared he had been hurt or worse, but he opened his eyes as soon as I was with him. Danny, he mouthed. I helped him stand up. He was trembling, unsteady on his feet. His clothing, like mine, was thoroughly soaked. His eyes were wide, bloodshot. He tried to speak but grimaced and grabbed his temples as though suffering under a great migraine. What is going on? I signed. Charles, talk to me. We are too late, he replied, his hands barely able to sign properly. She’s inside it now. I was hoping to learn… before it awakened… It’s too late now, Danny. It’s too late! What are you talking – But I never finished my question. The entire cave shivered and the ground beneath my feet trembled ominously. The beating of the heart slowed down yet became inexpressibly stronger. It was as though it were being concentrated. Focused. Once again my attention was wrenched towards the cocoon. Were my eyes deceiving me, or was it splitting from the top, opening like a flower? The heartbeat stopped. The silence that followed rattled my mind with horror because I knew that something had changed forever. A process which had taken years upon years had reached its apex and I knew I must avert my eyes but I could not… I was forced to look as the cocoon opened and then withered, falling away from that which it had contained, the shape only slightly shorter than I, a shape with a head and arms and legs. The mold fell away from the shape and yet it remained connected to the entire chamber by the long hair sprouting from its head, hair which was not hair but rather living tendrils that swayed gently under a nonexistent wind. It was a human shape which was revealed before me. A shape with softly glowing eyes, the very same eyes I had seen down in the basement and which now are gazing at me with a horrible sort of intelligence which I knew, I just knew, was not human. Even though the face of the creature standing there was known to me, I realized that this was not the maid, Ms. Avery, such as I had known her. She had been changed, just like the animals in those abominable cages had been changed. She was something new, something come from beyond the stars, something whose attention could not be denied and under which I felt pathetically small, insignificant, powerless. She demanded my attention and I could do nothing but give it. Her upper body looked mostly human still, even to the extent of wearing the tattered remains of what must have been a robe of some kind. The skin of her arms, her hands, and her neck was still pale, but underneath it I could see something moving, something swaying. Her face was emaciated. She looked like a victim of famine, or like someone who has been sick for many years, slowly wasting away. Her horrible, glowing eyes and the filigree network of living hair that was not hair were the only things about her that looked powerful and truly alive. They were mesmerizing in a horrible way, tugging at my mind with that insistent hunger, that call that demanded that I look, that I see, that I pay attention. It was almost enough for me to overlook her lower body, but not entirely. Her legs… Her legs were no longer human legs. They looked like a clumsy attempt at making lower limbs which could belong to a human being and yet they resembled the disgusting jointed appendages of an arthropod. They were made entirely of glowing mold and they appeared to mesh with the ground seamlessly, almost as if they had grown from it to join her upper body. As I watched in stupefied silence, the creature jerked its right leg forward. It was torn off from the ground itself, or so it seemed, as the foot that was not a foot was lifted and placed forward in a clumsy facsimile of a step. I backed away from it out of instinct. The creature’s eyes widened and it opened its mouth. I do not know whether it tried to speak, but the sound that escaped that throat has threaded itself through my nightmares ever since. It was a gurgling hiss that had never been heard on Earth before, a horrible moan, the groan of a dying creature which was made all the more disturbing because it looked, almost, as if the thing were trying to form words with lips that would not work correctly. I gasped in horror. The creature paused. Back away from it, Danny, Charles gestured urgently. He was struggling to do the same thing he suggested. I can’t! I replied. My body felt as if made from lead. I could not escape the insistent drilling gaze of those glowing eyes. I don’t know what’s happening! The creature, the alien, opened its mouth once more, a mouth which had once belonged to a human being, and another horrible gurgle issued forth from its corrupted throat. I felt a hand on the back of my shirt and then a sharp tug which sent me stumbling backwards. I fell to the ground, as did Charles, who had tried to pull me away. I grunted in pain and then looked up at the alien standing before us. What do you want? Charles gestured in evident panic. Why are you here? What do you want? The horrible sound the thing was making stopped. It finally looked away from me and focused on Charles. On… On his hands. It looked at its own hands, then. And I felt something in my mind. Something that was not coming from me. It was like a flash of understanding, like a shuddering epiphany. But then the ceiling above us started vibrating. And the creature went berserk. “Look out!” I shouted, and threw myself over Charles in a ridiculous attempt to protect him from what I was certain would be an attack. The attack never came, but the creature did tear itself out of the ground, moving in a horribly uncertain yet incredibly powerful way, jerking its body in uneven synchronicity and looking like a sped-up film of an animal learning to walk. It turned its back on us and launched itself at the spire, clawing its way upwards like a nightmarish spider. In my mind, I felt the focus of its overpowering attention shift away from the two of us and I gasped, aware for the first time of the crushing pressure under which my awareness had been while the alien had looked at us. I felt clarity and relief and an altogether different kind of fear all come crowding in when I saw Charles jump onto his feet and take off running after the alien. “Stop!” Charles screamed. “Come back!” The alien reached the end of the spire and jumped straight up with superhuman agility. The mold which covered the ceiling parted as the alien reached it and revealed the upper landing of a staircase I had not seen before. Right above it there was a circular hatch such as one might find in a submarine. The alien reached for it… and pulled. There was a sound of metal groaning as the hatch was bent out of shape. The metal held, but the alien pulled on it a second time and I saw it visibly deform. Where was it going? Where did that hatch lead to? And why did I get this horrible mental echo of ravenous desperation coming from the creature? I got up as fast as I could and ran after Charles. He moved faster than I would have expected him to be able to run and headed for the far end of the chamber. I followed desperately and it was only when I had nearly reached the opposite wall of the cave that I saw Charles was headed for the staircase. It appeared to have been bolted to the wall, and I now saw that, although it had been partially hidden by the mold, it led straight up to the hatch in the ceiling that the alien was trying to tear off its foundations. I was just a few steps behind Charles as we both ascended the metallic stairs, chasing after the creature. The mold was thick underfoot and twice I slipped, which was terrifying given the fact that I was now almost at ceiling level and a drop down to the ground would have been crippling if not deadly. Charles himself very nearly fell once, but he was racing towards the creature and I was right on his heels despite the fact that I did not know what we were doing or what was happening or why the creature so desperately wanted to go above ground. An earsplittingly sharp scrape of metal on metal forced me to stop and cover my ears. Then there was a loud clang, and when I looked again, I saw that the alien had managed to tear the hatch off its hinges. It did not even turn back to look at us. It just jumped straight up into the circular hole that it had created and disappeared from sight. Charles and I followed it. We could do nothing else. I saw Charles climb a flimsy ladder which led up into the unknown and I threw myself at it just is just his feet disappeared above me, out of sight. I did not hesitate. I simply pulled myself up, slipping only once this time, until I cleared the hatch and came out into… Into open space. I scrambled onto my feet, looking around with darting eyes. It was dark out but there was no shortage of illumination, as both Charles and I were standing underneath several floodlights which surrounded us from far away. Just a few feet to my right an array of antennas rose up from the ground. The floor around me was solid concrete, polished. It sloped outward gently, rising ever so slightly until it was lost in the darkness of the night. I realized I was standing at the very center of the parabolic dish which Charles had built over what had previously been the indentation, the scar left on the ground by the meteorite which had crashed on our planet so many years ago. Straight overhead, as I saw when I craned my neck up, a complicated array of transmitting equipment hung above us all at the focus of the paraboloid, a jumble of cables and blinking lights and antennas. The low hum of whichever generator constantly fed power to the Array could not only be heard, but also felt through the soles of my feet. I was standing at the very center of what had been the focus of Charles’s obsession ever since I had left for the war. He had been constantly beaming messages up to the stars, and trying to puzzle out the meaning in the jumbled chaos that he received as an answer. He had been so busy trying to discover the smallest inkling of intelligent life out in the void… and the bitter irony was that alien life had been gestating below our feet the entire time. Now, the gigantic array of impressive technology appeared almost pitiful when compared to the horror I had just witnessed. The nightmare wasn’t over yet, though. I could see that the creature, the hybrid, was climbing the arm of the crane which suspended the array of antennas over our heads. Fearless, the creature used its human forelimbs and its disgusting lower body with breathtaking dexterity. What was it doing? Why was it so eagerly climbing? I watched, transfixed, as it reached the top of the crane arm and then began to worm its way horizontally until it managed to reach the cluster of equipment which was beeping and blinking, busily transmitting and receiving information, oblivious to the chaos which had unfolded all around it. The alien reached its destination and went berserk. It grabbed metal and twisted it out of shape. It lunged forward and bit cables in half. It thrashed overhead in a frenzy of destruction, lashing out at everything within reach as if it were the most important thing in the universe to destroy every possible last a bit of the transceiver array. The crane which supported everything wobbled under the onslaught and it was only when I heard a dismayed cry that my attention was wrenched away from what the creature overhead was doing. I glanced at the crane arm further away. Charles was climbing it, just like the creature had done. “Charles! No!” I rushed forward but when I reached the crane I realized I could not help Charles at all. He was already a dozen feet above me, climbing the structure as best as he was able to, but he had never been an athletic individual and I could see that the tiniest distraction would send him tumbling down to the ground, to certain death. I could not follow him or I would risk causing him to fall. I was reduced to watch, horrified, as Charles made his way to the very top of the wobbling crane. He was fearless in those final moments. Once at the very top he scrambled on hands and feet all along the horizontal arm of the crane until he reached the focal point of his giant parabolic dish. The alien either did not see him approach or did not react to his presence at the beginning. It was much too busy destroying everything in sight. It was monstrously strong and by the time Charles stood up just a couple of feet away from it, looking as though he was desperately trying to keep his balance, the alien had thoroughly obliterated every last fragment of technology which the array had housed at its central and most critical point. “STOP!” Charles screamed, loud enough that I heard him, even though he was so high up. The alien whipped its head back. I saw the manic glow in its eyes. It appeared to hesitate, but then ignored Charles and crouched down, attempting to dislodge a cluster of very thick cables which looked as though they fed power to the structure. “Stop!” Charles repeated, and attacked the creature. Yes, it was he who attacked first. The alien appeared surprised. It did not react in time and Charles delivered a vicious kick to its midsection which sent it sprawling back. Only its superhuman agility prevented the creature from falling over the side. It grabbed on to whatever metal support it could find and then hoisted itself up once again. It lifted its arms and snarled. I saw it gather momentum as it prepared to lunge for Charles and kill him. I… I acted, and to this day I wonder whether this last, reflexive action on my part has not doomed us all. I learned how to fire a gun in the military. I became a good shot, in fact. And so, I whipped out the revolver out of its sealed leather bag, took aim, and emptied out all six rounds before the creature had a chance to reach my friend. The noise was deafening. They were both so far away that I feared I may have hit Charles by mistake… But my aim was true. The alien staggered visibly, arms still raised up, and then collapsed. It fell over the edge, its limp body slamming against the ground below with a sickening crunch. Ears still ringing from the shots, I rushed forward, gun in hand, to verify it was really dead. I reached it in just a couple of seconds. The alien was dying, it was clear to see. There were two gunshot wounds in his chest and its deformed legs were crumpled underneath it, broken. It was bleeding from the head. And yet the eyes still glowed, they glowed even brighter if at all possible, and as they fixed on me standing over it with the weapon which had killed it still in my hand, I had a sudden, horrible realization. It came in a wave, a sort of mental echo that I could not place, like a message desperately delivered in an incomprehensible language. It haunts me. It haunts me in dreams and in vigil and it tortures me with the crushing regret which I forever carry now. At that moment, I finally understood. The eyes, the glowing eyes, they were not evil. The burning intensity in them had been… Worry. The alien lifted its arms one last time, lying on the ground. And with trembling hands, silently, imitating the language it had seen Charles and me use, it spoke. Keep quiet, it said. Its eyes were glowing desperately. It gestured feebly at the Array all around us, at the antennas which had been so busily transmitting information out into the stars, advertising the fact that the Earth had intelligent life, that we wanted to make contact. With what appeared like a last desperate effort, the alien gestured again. Keep quiet… Keep quiet… Or They will hear. Like a light going out, its eyes dimmed suddenly. Death snatched it away from me before I could ask what it had meant and its arms fell to the ground, lifeless. Above me, every light suddenly went out except for one. It came down from the sky, a blinding floodlight which all but blinded me. It was a ship, cylindrical. I saw it then for the first time. It came down until it was hovering just a few feet above Charles. The light surrounded my friend. He screamed. I screamed as well. Then there was a sizzling, as of electricity. Every hair on my body stood up on end and I saw the dead body of the alien beside me being lifted up into the sky by means I could not fathom. It rose and rose until it reached the blinding light overhead and then disappeared. Along with Charles. I barely glimpsed him as he was being taken by the alien ship. I shouted his name but the ship paid me no mind. Its light turned off suddenly and then it was gone. Gone, forever. Or so I thought. Then, silence. Heavy. It echoed in my mind and I could not move. Dumbstruck, I stood there. The horrible stillness of the night surrounded me. I was left alone on that accursed parabolic Array. Hours passed. I could not understand what had happened. When Henry came and found me, the first light of dawn was burning in the East. I did not know why he was there, and I did not care. He no longer looked sick. But he looked very, very sad. “They are gone, aren’t they?” he asked me, standing beside me on the cold concrete. “Yes.” “I felt them go,” Henry said, reaching up to touch his temples. “In my mind. I felt its mind let go when you killed it.” I would have asked how he knew that I had killed the alien but I could not muster the strength to do so. “We misunderstood them, Daniel,” Henry said to me. His voice sounded hollow. As though it shared the horror and regret which was beginning to consume me. “You, me, even Charles, we all misunderstood. We thought the alien had come to kill us. We thought it was infecting creatures to take them over… And, in a way, it was. But not for evil. It desperately tried to talk to us without killing us but our biology was too different. It spent years perfecting a link from mind to mind… It was trying to warn us. I saw it in my mind while I was delirious. Visions. They have been watching us for thousands of years, did you know that? Caring for us. Protecting us from… From Them. Whatever They are. Those others, they kill intelligent life. All they can find. And they have found us.” “Was it because of Charles?” I asked at last. I remembered how frantically the alien had tried to destroy the antennas all around us. To silence us so They wouldn’t hear. “Was it because of this Array of his?” “Partly, yes. But we have had radio for years now. We broadcast our existence into the void without meaning to. The alien tried to prevent it. To keep us hidden. It failed.” “What happens now?” Henry shrugged. He looked like one who has accepted death. “Now we wait for Them to come. The others, the evil ones. We are defenseless. I have seen the weapons they use. Entire asteroids, sent like bombs towards helpless planets. We cannot fight against that, we do not have the technology yet. We are doomed. Humanity itself is doomed.” I heard his words, but strangely, what mattered to me most right then was the fate of a single individual. “And where is Charles? Where are they taking him?” Henry looked at me and started to cry. “I don’t know.” *** And so now I hobble out of my home, into the cold night, under the blinding glow of the alien vessel which hovers over the neighborhood. People are screaming, running away. I hear a siren but it is moving away from this place. Everyone is terrified, and why would they not be? Only I know differently. Only I approach, slowly because of my knee, until I am standing underneath the thing that, I know, has come for me. The night all around us is chilly and yet I do not feel cold. The golden-green glow in the sky, that familiar radiance which I first saw underneath a crater decades and decades ago, fills me now, not with horror, but with warmth, and with memories. A figure comes down from the light above, hovering, coming down gently as though floating. It is as though gravity does not exist for this figure. I would wonder how this is possible, how such a flagrant violation of the laws of physics can be, but I am past disbelief. My mind is completely open, ready to accept whatever happens next. And so I look up, focusing on the floating figure, squinting under the intense glare, trying to make out details in the physical form of the alien that has come down to talk to me. The figure appears bipedal. When it descends more I realize it also has two arms. A head. When it is just a few feet above the ground I realize the figure is a man, a young human man. I cannot see his face clearly. He lands on his feet just a few paces in front of me, barely making a noise. The light overhead dims to the point where it is no longer blinding… And then I see him. I gasp. Tears choke me. My hands spell out his name. Charles. He smiles. He lifts his hands and answers my gestures with his own. Hi, Danny. It has been a long time. He opens his arms wide, still smiling. I cry out in joy, surprise, confusion, and all but throw myself into his arms. His embrace is strong and firm. He smells just like I remember. It’s him. It is impossible, but it’s him. “Charles,” I whisper into his hair, crying. “Charles, it’s you.” “Yes, Danny,” he whispers back, although he would not have been able to hear my whispers, not before. “It’s me.” Our embrace ends and I step back, but I do not let go of his hands. I drink in the sight of him and marvel. He is just like I remember. Exactly. Young, tall, handsome. “How?” I whisper. Charles looks up at the hovering ship. “They did it. The say they needed me to help. To explain. And so they changed me, so I could work with them, all through these years.” He looks into my eyes. I see it, then, the tiniest hint of that golden-green glow, burning deep in the irises of the man who stands before me. But this time, rather than scaring me, the glow beckons. It speaks of kindness and wisdom and strength. “They?” Is all I could manage to say. I have so many questions. So many thoughts come to my mind at the same time. Charles nods solemnly. “Yes. The same beings who sent us a messenger who so desperately tried to warn us. The one you killed.” I let go of Charles’s hands and back away a couple of steps. I look down at the ground, ashamed. My knee hurts. I want to sit down. “I am so sorry…” I begin. “Don’t be,” Charles interrupts. “They understand. Really, they do. And if they are here now, Danny, if they have brought me back, it’s because there is still time. We can still fight.” I look up at him. “But… The asteroids. The bombs. They are headed for the planet and we can’t stop them.” “No, but our friends can.” I blink. “So they are here now to… To help us?” “Yes. Even now, three of their stealth ships are on intercept course for the asteroid bombs. It is a suicide mission but the pilots are all volunteers. That attack will never reach the Earth.” “Then we are safe?” I ask, scarcely daring to believe. “Humanity will not go extinct tonight?” It is Charles’s turn to look down, but when he looks back up at me there is a fierce determination burning in his eyes. “Not completely safe, no. You see, the asteroid bombs are only the first attack. Those Others, the ones who destroy sentient life, they will come for us, Danny. When their bombs are destroyed they will send ships. An invasion force. Our friends will help, but the attack will come from everywhere at once. Every city, every town on the planet will come under attack when They arrive. We do not have much time to prepare. But we do have some. “And that’s why I’m here,” Charles continues. “We need people to help coordinate the resistance. Smart people, determined, resourceful. I told them about you, and they agreed you’re a good choice. The first choice, in fact. Will you come with me, Danny? Will you help me fight to save our planet?” I give Charles a rueful grin. I gesture down at myself. “You come forty years too late. I would gladly help, but…” And, incredibly, Charles laughs. “Oh, Danny. Look at me! If you agree, if you want to fight, they can help you. They can rejuvenate your body, fix your hearing… They can even improve you, just a little, like this.” Charles’s eyes glow more brightly for an instant and he rushes forward in a blur of motion. In less than a blink of an eye, he is gone. “Boo,” a voice says from behind me. I jump, startled. Charles steadies my shoulders and gently turns me around so I’m facing him. “How did you do that?” I ask, dumbfounded. “You’ll be able to do that, too, if you want. What do you say, Danny? Will you help us? I… ” and for the first time, he looks almost unsure of himself. Awkward, like the Charles of old. “I’ve missed you so much through these years. I’d love for you and me to –” I interrupt him with a gentle fingertip on his lips. I hold his gaze, smile, and nod. “You have been in my thoughts every single day since I lost you,” I tell him. “I have found you again, and I won’t let you go.” His eyes brim with tears and he smiles broadly. He leans in and kisses me on the lips, deeply, with electric passion. I stiffen for an instant but then I give in, and soon I am crying too, out of pure and unbridled happiness. When our kiss ends, I cannot stop smiling. I hold both his hands and look into his eyes, at the alien glow in them, yes, but also at the fierce humanity, the kindness, the valor. “What happens now?” I ask quietly. “Now?” Charles echoes. “Now I take you up with me. And after a little touch-up… You and me will lead the fight for our home.” He looks up at the dark sky and frowns in open defiance, as though staring down an unseen enemy. He looks arrestingly handsome, and my heart skips a beat. “They won’t take us down without a fight,” he says. I look up with him, and for the first time in years, I am filled with determination and something even stronger than that. Hope. “No, they won’t,” I agree. “We’ll give them hell.”
  9. albertnothlit

    The alien

    I think the thirst for knowledge has a dangerous side which we too often overlook, to our own peril. However, if I were the first person to find alien life, I wonder whether I would act differently from Charles... I think I would, but the temptation to know would definitely be there.
  10. albertnothlit

    The alien

    This morning, a cylindrical monolith hovers over London. It is the only image on television, a live transmission coming from every channel. Every radio station on the planet, every news outlet, every newspaper, they all talk about one thing and one thing only: the object that came down from the sky, enormous, easily three times the size of any man-made skyscraper. It did not crash to the ground, however. It hovers. It waits. The object, the ship, the UFO… Whatever people call it, its true nature remains a mystery to most. It is entirely featureless, a cylinder of polished black metal that appears to drink in the light and neither emits any sort of electromagnetic radiation nor appears to receive or reflect any of the ceaseless transmissions it has been bombarded with as the entire world tries, desperately, to make first contact. It has no discernible means of flight and the fact that it hovers less than a mile above Central London and yet gives off no energy signature of any kind has every single scientist puzzling over how such a thing is possible at all. It is silent, undetectable by radar, and invisible to every single detection mechanism we have except for our own eyes, photographs, and cameras. We would not know it is there but for the fact that we can see it in the sky. It seems almost like magic – but, then again, advanced technology will always seem like sorcery to the ignorant barbarians who see it for the first time. Scientists are asking the wrong questions right now. I wonder if I should call a news station somewhere and tell them: you should not be asking why the object won’t communicate. Its very presence is already a message. You should not be asking why none of our telescopes picked it up before. It has obviously been designed to be invisible in the blackness of space, its apparent inertness the cloak which kept it hidden from our detection until it decided to show itself. Why has it now revealed itself? This is the question we should be asking. What has changed, or what is about to happen? Is that thing a mere probe, like our own Voyager 1 or Voyager 2? Is it a ship, are there occupants inside? Or is it a weapon? At first, people thought it was the Soviets. A declaration of war was issued by the United Kingdom and all its allies early this morning. Thirty minutes later it was withdrawn when it became obvious that the object did not come from this planet. People fear the usage of atomic weaponry against it as a preemptive measure and many are fleeing London if they can. Military forces from a dozen countries have been deployed and they have converged on Great Britain, patrolling the sky above and around the object, circling the seas, watching, waiting. No one knows what is happening and no one knows how to act. The tension cannot hold for much longer without breaking, I am sure. Even if the object does nothing else at all but hover silently, it is only a matter of time before someone, somewhere, launches a missile or detonates a bomb out of nervousness or negligence or fear. The next few hours will dictate the future of the entire human race. The irony of the fact that we may yet end up destroying ourselves because of our own stupidity is not lost on me. I wonder if They know. Is the waiting deliberate? Is this mysterious silence a display of patience or a display of cruelty, or both? I wonder what will happen next. Here in America many news outlets are questioning the events, suggesting a hoax perhaps, urging people not to panic. They speak of the Roswell incident in the fifties and remind everyone that despite the craze, things turned out to be nothing out of the ordinary in the end. They suggest this is one of those scenarios. They keep telling everyone to just go to work and stay tuned in for any new developments. I suppose they have been instructed to do so by the government. It is working, at least for now – as far as I can tell if I look out the window, the city of Albany hums along much as it has always done, with commuters coming and going on their vehicles, the mailman delivering mail, and people walking their dogs past my house as if nothing were the matter. I treasure these sights of normalcy because I know they will never return. This is no hoax. This is the beginning of the end. *** I waited in the darkness, shivering, for what felt like an eternity until I was certain that I was alone again in the pitch-black hallway. Only then did I open the gate which had kept me safe from my unidentified attacker. My legs trembled as I took my first step out into the hallway. I could not forget the evil shining eyes of the thing that had chased me, and I did not want to even hazard a guess as to what its true nature might have been. There were too many unknowns, too many mysteries piled upon mysteries. I knew, now, that by returning to this accursed Observatory I had stumbled onto something sinister and secret, something that surpassed all other strange occurrences which had taken place over the years on this site. Step after hesitant step, I made my way down the hall in total darkness, trying to be as silent as possible so as to avoid detection in case that thing were still out there, somewhere. My mind was a jumble of fear and confusion. I knew one thing for certain, however. I needed answers. I climbed the stairs which led out of the basement and it was only when I had shut the door of that awful place firmly behind me that I could relax, if only slightly. I was out of that darkness at last and I made my way quickly through the building until I reached the corridor which led to the bedrooms. My heart was pounding in my chest and I was sweating, but stronger than the fear or the urge to simply run away and never come back there was an angry sort of curiosity which needed to be satisfied. I needed to find Charles and demand an explanation. I did not care about the late hour. I would find him, even if I needed to wake up every last person in the household in order to do so. I first made my way to Charles’s bedroom but it was empty. I walked back down the corridor and looked up when I reached the staircase which led to the attic. The heavy reinforced door at the top was ajar. I did not hesitate. I walked up the steps two at a time, breathing heavily, afraid of finding the thing which had chased me but also determined to put an end to the questions. I pushed the door aside when I reached it and stepped into a place which I remembered as a wide open space in which Charles had sometimes taken refuge and sought solitude in order to think. It was nothing of the sort now. The place was… transformed. It had been transformed into a laboratory, I could see. The heavy, unpleasant smells of chlorine, formaldehyde, and animal waste all assaulted my nostrils at the same time and threatened to make me retch. Under the illumination of several cold electric lights set on the ceiling, I was able to take in the entire scene in an instant. I saw several long, flat tables set at regular intervals all along the center of the rectangular space. Many of them were stacked high with equipment from the biology lab. Others held piles upon piles of books. Paper sheets of every size littered both the tables and the floor beneath, all of them covered with lines of notes in the tight scrawl which I recognized as Charles’s handwriting. A shelf to my right held dozens of jars and pots with liquids of various colors, many of them unlabeled. Another shelf, further down and standing between two of the large windows which offered a view of the grounds beyond held… Things. Things in jars, suspended in either alcohol, formaldehyde, or some other preserving agent. Some of them looked like fragments of living things, paws, eyes, inner organs. Others look like embryonic reptiles or mammals or birds. And still others I could not identify, but I must confess I averted my eyes before I could ascertain just what the horribly misshapen unborn things floating inside implied as to their origin. My attention was drawn to the opposite wall without too much effort, for here I saw the cages. Many of them were empty, but some were not, and by God, I wish they had been. I took another hesitant step forward but then stopped. It was all I could do to remain standing there, staring at the animals inside the cages, instead of running downstairs screaming in visceral fear. Three cages had living things in them. In the first one, which was about three feet by three feet, I saw a creature which had often been in my nightmares over the past three years. It was a squirrel, larger than usual, standing perfectly still and staring at me with horribly intelligent eyes. Time had changed it, however. It was now completely green, having lost all semblance of fur. Instead, moldy growths undulated over its skin like a horrible caricature of what fur should be. Its eyes were now a golden shade of green, and they glowed. They glowed just like the eyes of the thing in the basement. When I made as if to move forward again, the squirrel tilted its head in a gesture I could only interpret as idle curiosity. It looked at me, unblinkingly, and I could not shake off the impression that I was being analyzed, but not by a brainless animal. Movement in the second cage drew my eyes. It was a larger cage, and inside it there was a cat, except it was not a cat. It could not be. Cats do not have six legs. The creature there stared at me as well, motionless, in complete silence. Its eyes did not glow, nor was its fur green, but I had the exact same impression as I watched its abominably deformed body as I did when I had watched the squirrel. I was being observed. I was being analyzed. The third cage contained a featherless bird, large enough to be an eagle and yet with the shape and proportions of an ordinary pigeon. It was disgusting to look at, not only because of its lack of feathers which made it look like a plucked chicken, but because of the fact that there appeared to be something underneath its skin which undulated ceaselessly, pushing against it as if trying to break free. The misshapen creature must have been in agonizing pain and yet it also stood as if petrified, in absolute silence. Its eyes never blinked as it, too, stared in my direction. I lifted my hand up to my face. All three animals followed the motion in unison. I heard a groan then, muffled, coming from beneath the cages. I broke free of the horrified spell under which the discovery of the animals had seemed to put me and walked further into the lab. It was then that I saw Henry lying facedown on the floor, next to the largest cage of all, a cage big enough to hold a grown man, the door to which looked as if it had been torn open. Despite my disgust, the fear, and the awful smell, I made my way forward and knelt beside Henry. I turned him over carefully, trying my best to ignore the stares of the three caged animals. Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I also caught the faintest hint of motion from some of the things floating in jars on the shelf by the opposite wall, but I refused to look in that direction. Instead, I focused on trying to revive the unconscious youth before me. “Henry. Henry, wake up!” I said, flinching at the very obvious effect which the sound of my words had on the creatures nearby. They moved at last, approaching the mesh of their cages, trying to get closer to me. Then they stopped and resumed their horrible staring. Henry moaned again. He appeared to have hit the side of his head against the floor, judging from the bruise I could see and the blood running down his temple. I should have perhaps been more gentle and patient, waiting for him to come to his senses in due time, but the circumstances were anything but normal and I needed answers. I shook him several times until I finally got him to blink. “Henry!” I called loudly. “Do you know where you are? This is Daniel. What happened here?” He opened his eyes at last and focused on my face. He blinked twice as if confused, like a person who has been woken up suddenly in the middle of the night. Then he sat bolt upright. “Where is it?” he cried, but then he grimaced and brought his right hand up to his temple. He swayed weakly and I steadied him with my hands. “Where is it?” I demanded. “Henry, answer me!” He looked at me and, for the first time, appeared to realize that I was there. His eyes widened in alarm. “Mr. Fenton. What are you doing here?” “Something attacked me in the basement. I need you to start talking. What is going on here?” But Henry ignored my question, instead looking to the right, at the large empty cage next to us. He started shaking. “It got away. Dear God, it got away.” I grabbed hold of his shirt, tugging on the sling in which he carried his wounded left arm by accident. He grimaced in pain. “What got away?” I demanded. He tried to jerk away from me but all he managed was to tear off the sling and expose his wounded arm. I could not help but look. There was a bite mark there, and it looked infected. The edges of it were covered with blackened scar tissue, but some of it was… fuzzy… I let go of him, recoiling, and jumped back onto my feet. Slowly, still in evident pain, Henry stood up as well. He leaned back against the cage with the squirrel and the animal inside did not reach for him or attack him in any way. I realized all of the animals were still looking at me. My mind reached its breaking point quite suddenly and I turned around, intending to run away and never come back to this awful, godforsaken place. As I did so, though, I saw Charles rushing up the stairs. He came to a shocked standstill at the threshold of the attic door. His clothing and his hair were soaked through. “Where is she?” Charles demanded. He looked all around wildly, spraying water droplets everywhere. “Where is she?” It was the last thing I expected him to say and so I stood still, dumbstruck. “I’m sorry, Charles,” Henry whimpered behind me. “I was dizzy… She waited until I opened her cage to feed her and then…” “No,” Charles whispered. He stepped forward a couple of steps, blinking quickly, as if his mind were racing. He started signing and appeared not to notice. Then that thing at the well… I thought… “We need to catch her,” Henry said. I glanced back at him and saw he was swaying on his feet. His brow was beaded with sweat and there were dark circles under his eyes. He looked really unwell. “We need to catch her before –” “It’s too late,” Charles interrupted. He walked up to a table and leaned his hands on it as if he were under a great burden. “She’s gone. And just when we were finally getting her to talk!” He slammed his fist on the table with his last word. I started, surprised at the outburst. Then I saw how Charles reached up to his neck and clutched the fragment of meteorite that hung from its metallic chain around it. It was my turn for an outburst. “That’s it,” I said loudly. “That’s it! Charles, tell me what is going on here right now.” He focused on me as if for the first time noticing, truly noticing, that I was there as well. Danny, he signed. It’s nothing – Don’t you DARE tell me it’s nothing, I said, my gestures violent, stepping forward until only the width of an examination table separated us. I was just downstairs in the basement. Something came for me, Charles. Something with eyes that were glowing just like that damned pendant you wear. I will ask just one more time. What is going on? Charles looked at Henry fleetingly. I followed his glance, and I noticed how Henry’s knees buckled under him. Instinct took over. I rushed back and caught him before he could hit the floor, grunting under the youth’s weight. He was unconscious, I saw. His body felt clammy. Silently, I glared at Charles. “Help me carry him downstairs,” I told him slowly. “Then, you talk.” Charles nodded sheepishly, all traces of his previous anger apparently forgotten, and he swung Henry’s left arm over his shoulders while I did the same with the right. Together, awkwardly, we left the ghastly attic behind and stumbled down the stairs until we reached my room, which was the closest one. We dragged Henry to the bed and set him down with effort. I’m going to call Mr. White, I told Charles. Henry needs a doctor. But Charles shook his head. It’s no use, Danny. Doctors can’t help him. Sit down. I’ll tell you everything. I hesitated. But no matter the antipathy I might have felt towards the youth, it was clear to me that he needed to go to a hospital as soon as possible. I don’t know what’s going on, Charles, but I will not be an accomplice to negligence. I will be right back. I walked down the hall and turned right at the corridor which led towards the servants’ quarters. I knocked on Mr. White’s door, pounding really, and he opened it a few seconds later, bleary-eyed. “I am sorry to bother you at this late hour, Mr. White,” I said. “It appears Henry has fallen ill. Kindly see to it that a doctor is called right away, and if none is available, make all arrangements necessary to take Henry to the nearest hospital. You may use my car.” I handed him the keys. It took him a moment to nod. “Yes… Certainly, Mr. Fenton.” “I would also greatly appreciate your being discreet about this whole matter,” I added. “I do not know what has happened to Henry, but it will not do to begin spreading rumors around. Do you understand?” “I do,” he answered, standing up straight. Even in his pajamas, he managed to portray an air of calm efficiency for which I had never been more grateful. “Thank you. I will be in my room with Henry and Mr. Wentworth while you sort things out.” I turned around and hurried back. I found Charles sitting right where I had left him. He appeared not to mind his wet clothes at all. Henry was still lying on the bed, eyes closed, his breathing apparently shallow. Now we talk, I said to Charles, sitting on the armchair opposite his. What is happening? What were those… things I saw upstairs? And what, just what attacked me in the cellar? Charles took a shaky breath. He looked at the door once, as if contemplating either leaving or arguing. But then his shoulders slumped and he nodded. It’s the meteorite, Danny, he said, his fingers quick as they danced through the air. It’s always been the meteorite. Do you remember the mold? Yes, I answered, recalling the many times over the years that I had seen it, either around the crater or inside the property, like the day I had visited the maid, Ms. Avery, who had complained about its presence in her room. Wait here, Charles told me. I frowned but allowed him to leave since I couldn’t leave Henry alone. Charles hurried out the room and was back within a couple of minutes carrying a medium-sized fish tank in his arms. The tank must have been transparent and one point, but now it was a uniform shade of slate-green. Charles set it on a small coffee table beside my armchair. His expression, strangely enough, was… eager. What’s this? I asked him. For an answer, he opened the lid that had been covering the top of the fish tank. An overpowering stench of rotting vegetable matter wafted out from the open container. Inside, I saw mold. A lot of it. Watch this, he signed. Then he reached his hand into the container. “Don’t!” I cried out, but Charles ignored me. He plunged his hand into the velvety mass. His fingers never touched it. The moment I thought his skin would come in contact with that thing, the mold shrank away from him, contracting to half its original size. Charles moved his hand around and the mold did its best to avoid being touched. Openmouthed, I watched the display for several horribly fascinating seconds. I cannot help but be reminded of certain species of anemones which will retract their tentacles when they sense danger nearby. This was the same thing. Somehow, simple vegetable mold was able to sense that Charles’s hand was nearby and it appeared not to like it. Why is it doing that? I asked him. That’s not all, he replied. Now watch this. Charles slipped off his pendant and hung the fragment of meteorite over the fish tank. Slowly, so faintly at first that I thought my eyes were deceiving me, the tips of the mold stalks in the tank began to luminesce. It was that same light, that very same gold-green light that by now I had grown to hate. As if in reply, the core of the meteorite fragment gave off a soft glow of its own. Charles put on his pendant after a few seconds, closed the lid of the tank, and set it down on the floor so it would be out of sight. Aghast, I again saw that, far from being horrified, he looked fascinated. Pleased. He was very nearly smiling. Charles. Explain. I think the mold is a new kind of life form, Danny, he said, and he could not stop himself from grasping his pendant for an instant. It must have come inside the meteorite. Do you remember how cold it was when we found it first? I have long thought about that, and many other things. Any sort of biological agent a meteorite could house would surely be destroyed by the enormous heat of atmospheric reentry and eventual impact, would it not? But what if it had, somehow, been designed to keep its contents cold so they could survive and take purchase after reaching a new world? What are you saying? I gestured, although I knew very well what he was implying. This mold is an alien organism. It has to be. It’s too different. I have studied it for years now, and it’s… Danny, it’s fascinating! I shook my head slowly, horrified. My logical mind came forward, I suspect, as a kind of defense against the unbelievable things I was hearing. Charles, consider Occam’s razor. A far simpler explanation is bound to be the correct one. This mold looks like any other mold, even if it behaves differently. You cannot say – Oh, but I can, he interrupted me. I exhausted every other possibility. I was patient. I experimented. I observed. Danny, this mold does things to other living creatures, things that nothing on Earth would be able to do. You saw the creatures in the lab upstairs. Those monsters? Monsters? he echoed, frowning, as if the thought had never occurred to him. Rather, advances. Hybrids. Most of them failures, yes. But it’s part of evolution, is it not? Trial and error. Mutation and eventual success. I shuddered, thinking of the misshapen animals I had seen in those cages. What purpose could such horrible mutations serve? Here, incredibly, Charles grinned. His expression reminded me very sharply of the way he would smile whenever I arrived, on my own, at a conclusion he had carefully guided me to. Exactly, Danny. Well asked. Why has this alien thing come? How was it sent here, and for what purpose? We do not know it is alien, I countered. It is. I understand your reticence. It took me years to reach these conclusions and you have had less than a few hours to process this entire experience. Nevertheless, I am certain you will arrive at the same conclusion I have. This mold comes from a different planet and the vehicle it used to travel between the stars was designed. It was a meteorite, I reminded him. A horrible fluke of nature which killed your entire family. Charles grimaced slightly and, although it had been a low blow, I was glad to see that he could still feel bad about that ancient tragedy. “Do you remember that night?” Charles asked me, turning his back to me so he would be able to look out the window, arms crossed behind his back. “Yes,” I said softly. I doubted he heard me. He continued, nevertheless. “Perhaps you have forgotten one detail, Danny. Or perhaps you did not see. Do you remember how closely we were following the thing I thought was a comet? Do you remember how my calculations showed clearly that it would come close but not impact with the Earth?” “Of course,” I replied, stepping forward and raising the volume of my voice a little bit. I looked out the window and saw nothing but darkness through the glass, but in my mind’s eye I could see that night once again. “I wasn’t wrong, you know,” Charles said quietly. “My calculations were correct. But there was a flash of light, do you remember? An unexpected flash of light. And the trajectory of the comet changed.” I blinked. I did remember that. I hadn’t thought about it for years, but he was right. “What happened?” Charles went on. “What changed, why the light? It was calculated, Danny. It must have been an explosion of some kind. Fuel burning in the void. Bright chemical exhaust. Something. And its ultimate consequence was to alter the trajectory of the comet so it would impact. It was planned.” “Nonsense.” He turned to look at me. “Really? I have gone over that night hundreds of times, thousands. At first I had doubts but no longer. This thing, this object, was sent to our planet. Some form of intelligence, whether directly present or long ago programmed in some way, directed the comet so that it would enter our atmosphere and deliver its payload. The vessel itself was carefully engineered. Remember the odd coolness of the meteorite when you found it. No material on Earth is able to sustain such a temperature differential in the absence of active energy production. And why bother keeping the inside cool, if not to protect the delicate biological cells it housed? The entire system is a masterpiece. It is an incredibly efficient way to send living biological matter across the vast empty expanses of space in such a way as to ensure that the contents will have a survival chance after impact. Can you imagine the inherent complexities of creating such a machine? We are in the presence of either great genius, or nearly incomprehensible technological advancement. Maybe both.” I shook my head. Cold sweat beaded on my temples. “Maybe. But even so, it does not change the fact that this thing is evil. It corrupts everything it touches. Like the things in your lab… Or this odd luminescing mold… Or the thing that attacked me downstairs.” A shadow of worry appeared to pass over Charles’s features but then he frowned as if pushing it aside. “You would have been in no real danger. She was much too weak. And just when I was about to get her to communicate…” “She?” “Ms. Avery, of course. We kept her upstairs for the better part of three years. It’s ironic that only now, when the corruption had truly spread –” “What? Charles, was I attacked by the maid, Ms. Avery? The one who disappeared three years ago? The one who somehow returned to her village in the middle of winter when we all thought she had died?” “Yes. Her family sent her back to me eventually. They said she kept escaping and wandering off in the direction of the Observatory. It was about six months after you left. They said they could no longer care for her and so they entrusted her to me. I kept her upstairs while her condition worsened. It was fascinating to witness. She had been infected by the mold but, somehow, it was nowhere near as aggressive with her as it had been with the reporter, Eoin Caine. You remember him, yes? We read his journal.” Flashes of memory swept past my mind. I remembered the increasingly desperate notes I had read in those pages. “Caine must have died within a week of infection,” Charles continued, seemingly oblivious as to the growing horror plainly visible in my face. “Ms. Avery did not. I’m not sure, Danny, but I think the mold was somehow… learning. When it killed those missing hikers all those years ago, it was almost instantaneous. A single night and they all went insane. With Caine it took a week. Ms. Avery is still alive, in a way. The life form is making progress. It is adapting itself better to inhabiting terrestrial organisms without killing them. You should take a walk through the woods around the crater if you can. You’ll see a lot of squirrels… They always watch me when I get close. Silently. Like the one that sneaked into our bedroom that night. They are all green now, no traces of silver fur anywhere. Their eyes are… different...” “This is madness,” I whispered. I took a step back from him. I did not know what horrified me more: the possibility that he had gone insane and all he was saying was a figment of his overactive imagination, or that he was speaking the truth word for word. “Quite the opposite, Danny. We are in the presence of intelligent life even if you find it hard to accept it. There is a purpose behind this invasion, if indeed an invasion it is.” “And just what purpose is that?” I don’t know, he signed, reverting back to silent language without appearing to notice. I have tried to find out. I was making progress, but now she’s gone. Is it hostile? Is it slowly taking over the planet? There is so much to learn… So much… Charles, this needs to stop. Look right there! I gestured, sweeping my hand in the direction of Henry’s prostrate figure. The authorities need to be notified. Whatever this is, it’s dangerous. We must let other people know – “NO!” Charles screamed. “No. Not when I’m so close. We must know, Danny. I must know. Why is the alien here? Why did it come? Is it one or many? Is the mold conscious? Or can it only attain consciousness if linked to a living creature? Even if it’s going to destroy us, we can learn so much before then! All this time I have been hopelessly beaming out information to the stars, hoping to get a reply, and the reply has been here all along! Don’t you see? I… I… I need to go to the crater. I need to find Ms. Avery before she –” At that moment, someone knocked at the door and a moment later Mr. White entered the room. He had changed into clean clothes. “The doctor at Tupper Lake cannot travel here, Mr. Fenton,” Mr. White notified me. “He nevertheless agreed to be awake and ready by the time Henry is transported over to him. I have prepared your car, as you asked.” “Good,” I replied before Charles could get a word in. “Get two of the cooks to help you carry Henry over to the car and take him there posthaste. You will drive, Mr. White. you know the road to the village far better than I.” He nodded. “And you, sirs?” I looked at Charles. He appeared conflicted. He looked at me, at Henry, at me again. Then that abominable pendant of his began to glow. I’m sorry, Danny, he said. I must know. I must. Then he took off running, faster than I had ever seen him move before in my life, roughly pushing Mr. White aside. It took me a moment to recover from the surprise and then I sprinted after him. “Get Henry to a doctor!” I yelled at Mr. White as I rushed out of the room. Then I ran, trying to catch up to Charles even if I could not see him anymore. From far off, I heard a heavy door being slammed. My own footsteps pounded down the hallway as I made my way to the place where I knew Charles must have gone. It was the only place he could go. The crater.
  11. They often say that curiosity can be dangerous sometimes, and I suppose that for those with a very strong natural inclination for inquisitiveness, it may be hard to resist. In the case of Daniel, he is beginning to learn that sometimes it is best not to know... Although, by now, he is in too deep and it would appear it is too late to retreat into blissful ignorance.
  12. It is now morning. How long has it been since I last slept? It seems as though I have been writing these memoirs for weeks, but I know this is not the case. I turned on the news today. There is mistrust, and there is confusion. Some people suspect the truth by now but their voices are being drowned by others who call them alarmists, liars, or agents in the service of some foreign power or another. Here in America we blame the Soviets. I have seen no less than three news programs where they suspect that the troubling findings some astronomers have been reporting related to the strange brightness of the night sky are surely either lies or, much more worrisome, indications of secret atomic tests which threaten the entire human race. Explanations have been proposed, each one more outlandish than the last, such as the fact that the oddness of the moon last night must have been the consequence of a covert nuclear detonation on the surface of the satellite. Official government communications downplay these crazy theories, but that is not stopping them from spreading. Have the Communists really sprung so far forward in their relentless technological advances as to allow them not only to reach the moon itself, but to experiment with nuclear weaponry on its surface? Does this mean the end? Is nuclear winter a matter of time? How many cities will be destroyed? How many of us will survive to witness the desolation after humanity destroys itself? It is ironic that, even at a moment like this, most of us cannot help but think that destruction will come from within. I do not know what the military of my own country will do, but I can guess they are not sitting idle while these rumors are floating around. The signs are now too numerous, too worrisome, to simply ignore. They must be preparing themselves for war. They are fools. We cannot win against this enemy. I have not left my house, but through my bedroom window, I have seen how one of my neighbors prepares for what he must believe is the inevitable nuclear strike which is sure to aim for nearby New York City. I have watched him carry numerous boxes of supplies into the fallout shelter he built in his backyard five years ago. His wife watches him from an upstairs window, a worried frown on her face. I noticed earlier that their children did not go to school today. Should I go out and tell him that no amount of preparation can save him, or his family? Should I go out into the streets and begin yelling like a madman, proclaiming the truth I know and which, I am certain, no one will believe? Or should I simply wait? It does not matter. Soon they will all know, beyond a shadow of doubt, that it is not the Soviets we have to fear. *** The morning after my return to the Observatory, I felt the strong temptation to simply leave. Charles obviously did not want me there anymore, and if he had… If he had already replaced me, as I had discovered very painfully last night, then surely there was little point in me staying. Henry was there now, younger, annoying, ever-smiling. What had he called me the day before? Ah. His predecessor. I got dressed as soon as the sun rose that day, my thoughts dark, my expression grim. The day outside mirrored my mood as it was overcast and rainy. I went to breakfast early enough to be certain that Charles would not be up, and it was only the cooks I met in the kitchen at that hour. I asked for scrambled eggs and toast, and ate alone in the dining room, already thinking about what I would do with myself and with my career now that working together with Charles, as I had envisioned, was obviously not an option anymore. I supposed I could work with my father. He was getting on in years and I was certain he would be more than happy to train me to become his successor and inherit his clients. I could also apply to a local university, or join one of the postwar research projects which I knew to be still ongoing from among the contacts I had made during my service. There were options available to me, which made the bitter disappointment of last night somewhat easier to swallow. I would have liked to have lived here, in the Observatory, together with Charles once again and to spend the years researching as we had done for that wonderful, altogether too-short year. It was not to be, though. I tried to convince myself of this fact as the morning progressed. I went back into my room and gathered my things. I planned to leave as soon as possible, but the rain outside had begun to fall harder, reaching storm proportions around noon. Although the road leading out of the property was paved, the way was winding, narrow, and treacherous. I had no wish to endanger my life by leaving right then and driving in the middle of a downpour, so I resigned myself to another day of staying. I kept to myself, however, spending the hours of early afternoon reading in my room next to the window, finding an odd sort of solace in the unceasing patter of heavy raindrops against the glass. The temperature descended quite drastically, in stark contrast to last night’s warm weather, and evening found me wearing a robe while sitting in an elaborate and rather comfortable armchair next to a fireplace which I was deciding whether to have lit or not. I was sipping some black tea with honey which helpful Mrs. Thompson had brought to me a while earlier along with my supper. When the knock came at my door around 5 PM, I supposed it was her once again. “Come in,” I called, not even looking up from the copy of King Lear I was idly perusing at the moment. It was only when the door closed and no greeting came that I glanced in that direction and realized that Charles was standing there, looking uncomfortable and apologetic. Hello, Daniel, he signed. I did not see you at lunch. I did not answer. I watched his gaze land briefly on me and then slide away, almost as if he were afraid to meet my eyes. I registered the small frown on his brow when he saw my suitcases, ready and packed, next to the door. Too bad about the rain, I gestured, nodding briefly in the direction of the window. I’m afraid I will have to inconvenience you for one more night. You were leaving? Charles asked, as if there could have been any doubt as to what I had meant. Of course. I get the distinct impression that my… my help is no longer needed. Not to worry, however. Tomorrow, weather permitting, I will jump on my car in the morning and – “Don’t,” Charles interrupted me, accompanying the word with a gesture. What? I asked. Don’t leave. I came here to tell you that. Please don’t leave. I raised my eyebrows to inflect mild sarcasm in my hand gestures. I was under the impression that my presence here was rather superfluous. Your assistant appears to be quite capable. Charles grimaced as if I had insulted him. He helps me, yes. But he is not a colleague. He does not understand half the things I talk about, let alone offer any meaningful contributions to the research. He is just that, an assistant. He is not a researcher like you or I. I could not help it. I smirked ever so slightly, remembering the self-important way in which Henry had, the evening prior, referred to the work he and Charles did as ‘too complicated to trouble me with it’. So you accepted my return because you need a colleague? I asked him. Yes. My work gets more complex all the time and I need another capable mind to discuss ideas, results, and theories. I could offer you quite a generous salary if that would make you reconsider, Daniel. I greatly value your academic contributions. Not only would we share in credit for any discoveries, but you would also be able to build capital of your own. Perhaps he had meant it sincerely, but that was precisely the last thing I had wanted to hear from him. He wanted me here as an employee, then – nothing more. I looked at Charles, long and hard, until he looked away. Then I stood up to command his attention once more. I thank you greatly for your generous offer, I said, and the expression on my face made the tone of my gestures clear. I was disappointed. I was angry. I was hurt. I’d had enough. I’m afraid, however, that I will have – The moan interrupted me, shrill and grating, coming from the attic above my room. It was the same horrid sound that I had heard last night, but muffled, as if its source was being somehow contained. As before, goosebumps erupted on my skin and I resisted the urge to cover my ears in order to block the gurgling noise that sounded like a drowning animal in the agony of death. I looked at Charles. He seemed alarmed. “I’m on my way!” Henry’s voice called from the hallway beyond. I heard running footsteps and the hurried jingle of keys. I heard the groan of a heavy door opening in the distance and the deep thud as it was slammed shut. The moaning stopped. What is happening? I demanded, stepping closer to Charles. What is that noise? Please don’t leave, Danny, he said, his face betraying genuine fear. I need you here. Then he opened the door and rushed away before I could say anything. I followed, of course, and I saw him go up the staircase that led to the attic. When I got there, however, Charles had already disappeared through that heavy door reinforced with metal and he did not open it despite my insistent knocking. I did not see Charles again that day, although around dinnertime I caught a glimpse of Henry as he dashed across the hallway yet again. Curious, I followed him to the chemistry laboratory where I saw him cleaning his left arm under the stream from the nearest faucet. “Is everything okay?” I asked, stepping inside. He whirled about, evidently surprised. He covered his arm with his hand but I thought I saw blood. Had he been injured? “Yes, yes, nothing to worry about, Mister Fenton. Please, don’t let me keep you.” He left the laboratory without waiting for me to reply, still clutching his left arm. I did not see him again for the rest of the day and I spent the night listening intently, but nothing else out of the ordinary happened and eventually exhaustion claimed me. I slept well into the morning of the next day, waking up only as breakfast was brought in by Mrs. Thompson, who looked sympathetic and slightly apologetic. I began eating. Someone knocked at my door before I had finished my poached eggs. “Come in,” I said, not even bothering to stand up. Charles appeared in the threshold, looking haggard. He entered the room with only slight hesitation. “Is everything okay?” I asked him, speaking since my hands were occupied with fork and knife. I wanted to know. Have you reconsidered? Will you stay? He looked as if he had not slept at all last night. Quite unusually for him, he was still wearing yesterday’s clothes and he had not shaved. It was mildly shocking for me to see him like this, since I knew he could be quite fastidious about his appearance. “What is going on?” I demanded. “What was that business yesterday?” Charles shook his head. An experiment. One of many. Nothing to worry about, I assure you. Henry is in charge of it and it is not the most important of my many endeavors, not by far. I need help, Daniel. The Array has been functional for several months now and the data I am collecting is too complex to make sense of by hand. I need help in developing a new mathematical model to process such large amounts of information and you are the only one I know with the background and capacity to provide meaningful input in order to accomplish it. Perhaps he had meant it as a compliment, but all I heard was that the only reason he wanted me around was because he had become so reclusive and isolated from the world that I was the only one who could call on for academic help. I set my utensils aside. I don’t know, Charles, I answered. I see things are different here and I am not sure whether I would be a good fit for this place anymore. I have also changed, you see. My time away has provided me with both experience and a new outlook on things. I have several other offers for employment and, to be honest, after spending a couple of days here they now appear rather more appealing than they were at the beginning. I was lying, of course, but only partially. While I had no concrete prospects at the moment, the night’s rest had made several things clear, among them, that Charles need not be the only source for academic and professional fulfillment in my life. I’d had to admit that the main reason I had come back had not been because of the position itself, but rather because I had looked forward to spending my time with Charles again. But not as a mere colleague. I can increase your salary… Charles ventured, but I cut him off. It’s not about the money. Please do not insult me like that again. I shall be leaving either today or tomorrow, depending on the weather. Charles grimaced. Daniel… I… Can you at least stay for a little while? For a week or two? Whatever for? Please, he insisted, and I saw, in the clipped tightness of his gestures and the way he pressed his lips together, that he was desperate for some reason. Just so I can show you the work I have done, the progress I have made. Once you see, once you understand… I may yet convince you to stay. Please, if I may be so bold as to ask, do it as a favor to me. Two weeks. Give me two weeks. I hesitated. I wanted to leave, didn’t I? But seeing Charles essentially begging for me to stay was hard and I found my recent certainty falter. I… I started to say, but found I have no follow-up. Two weeks. Please. Charles stepped closer to me, crossing the room to stand just a couple paces away. He clutched the pendant he still wore around his neck, closing his fist around the fragment of meteorite that hung from the chain. Strangely, he looked over his shoulder, almost as if he were afraid of being overheard. I need you here. I need you to understand. Henry – But at that moment Charles’s eyes widened and he gasped audibly. He stepped back, away from me, his terrified gaze directed at the window to the right, which offered a view of the garden. He gestured with exaggerated clarity when he next spoke, almost as if he were speaking to someone who could barely understand sign language. I hope you will reconsider, Daniel, he said in this manner. I thank you for your time and look forward to seeing you at supper. Then he all but whirled around and left the room with quick strides. Bewildered, I looked through the window, but I could not see anything there worthy of attention or frightening enough to elicit such a reaction from him. It was only when I stood up and walked up to the glass that I noticed faint indentations on the brown, soft soil which the gardener had already prepared for the seeds he would be planting later. The indentations looked like animal tracks, small, such as a cat might make. There was nothing odd about them per se… Except for the fact that, instead of seeing sets of four tracks as I might have expected, there were two very distinct places on the ground where I could see a cluster of six individual pawprints arranged strangely on the soil. I was not a tracker, however. It may have been nothing, although I could not suppress a shiver from going up my spine all the same. I spent a lot of time in my room, thinking. When suppertime came, I had finally made up my mind to stay for the aforementioned two weeks despite my misgivings. My decision came about due to a mixture of curiosity, concern, and the sense that I owed Charles at least this much due to our shared… friendship of years past. Thus, I sat down at the table opposite from Charles and promptly communicated my choice to him after most of the meal was over. He smiled, visibly happy. Thank you, he told me. Really, thanks. You’re incredible, Daniel. I-K, I signed, conveying mild humor through my expression. I know. What should we begin with? What do you need help with the most? He smiled. First, I would like you to take a look at – But Henry came in at that moment, his arm in a sling. Charles stopped abruptly midsentence and switched to spoken language. “I have been developing a mathematical model which can help me parse large quantities of recurring data sets and find irregularities within the recurrence,” he said, nodding at Henry as the latter sat down next to him. “All the information you will need will be made available to you through Henry here. I suggest you use the physics laboratory in the main building. If you would like, Henry can bring you the information this afternoon so you can begin to look over my model. I am most interested in your opinion regarding the trial data set and the conclusions the model arrived at. I think it is working as intended, but a second opinion would be invaluable to me. I am using the calculations already to try and make sense of several bursts of electromagnetic waves I have detected with the Array, and I must know whether I am working with adequate tools or whether any part of the algorithm is faulty.” We should look at it together, I signed quickly, deliberately avoiding spoken words since I now suspected that Henry was not all that fluent in sign language. “Unfortunately I cannot,” Charles said, exchanging a fleeting glance with Henry, which made me grit my teeth. “Tonight I will be very busy at the… At the Array. I must gather more information. I’m afraid we will have to work separately for the time being, Daniel. I hope that is okay. If all goes well, in about two or three nights I should have finished with the matters which keep me urgently engaged and then I would be very happy to go over any notes you might have on the mathematical foundation of my work.” I paused. What was going on here? First, Daniel had appeared to be nearly desperate, begging for me to stay and help him. And yet now he was dismissive and acted just as he had in the evening of my arrival, as if he were far too busy to deign give me more than a few minutes of his time. I was angry but my curiosity was growing. So I merely said, aloud for Henry to understand, “Sure. I shall expect the relevant information in a couple of hours, Henry.” “Certainly, Mr. Fenton,” he said. His voice sounded a little raspy. “If there is nothing else, I think I shall go write a couple letters,” I told them. Dessert still had not come, but I was not in the mood for sweets anymore. “Of course,” Charles said. “Thank you again for reconsidering.” I did not answer. I simply left and spent about an hour and a half catching up on correspondence. Later, without much enthusiasm, I went to the physics laboratory to do as I had promised and help Charles with the theoretical aspects of his work. Upon entering I found that two notebooks and four ledgers full of information had already been deposited on one of the tables, presumably by Henry. There was nobody in sight and I settled down on one of the comfortable armchairs next to the library shelves in order to peruse the information which had been provided to me. Several hours later, I was still reading. Despite everything else going on, I was fascinated by the elegance of Charles’s equations, theorems, and diagrams. There were segments which I could not understand at all, and the more I read, the more my admiration of him grew. In the years since I had last seen him he had developed a suite of mathematical tools which he had expertly arranged into a system capable of sifting through large amounts of data in an extremely efficient way. In theory, the model he presented would allow him to do the work of several dozen people at once and, just as he had said, identify irregularities within recurring sets of information. That in itself was not too meaningful – at first glance. But it all depended on the application. From my time dealing with encrypted information in Chicago, I knew that what Charles had developed here would be enormously valuable not only in astronomy, but also in code breaking, economics, and even biology. I was amazed. So engrossed was I with my reading, in fact, that it was only after my hunger became too insistent to ignore that I set aside the documents and looked at my pocket watch. It was an hour after midnight. I stood up with a sigh and stretched. I decided to go to the kitchen to procure something to eat. I knew I might even find one of the cooks still awake, since ever since Charles had hired them years ago, he had stressed the fact that at least one of them should be on call at all times to prepare food in the middle of the night whenever Charles scheduled a night of observations through the telescope. I stepped out into the hall, which was dark and silent. I looked in the direction of Charles’s room but saw that the door was open and it was dark inside as well, so I surmised he must still be wherever it was he went at night. Of Henry there was no sign, and I saw no one as I made my way to the kitchen. Once there, a sleepy cook made me a tuna sandwich after a bit of grumbling. When it had been prepared, I thanked him and took my food elsewhere, as I did not like to be in the company of the cooks for longer than was strictly necessary. There was something about their large, watery eyes and the unnerving habit they had of barely even blinking which I had never liked. I ate as I went back to the physics laboratory, and I was so hungry that the sandwich was gone by the time I made it to the door. I was about to enter when I heard a faint crash. I immediately thought of the metal door upstairs, but this crash had come from somewhere different. It had sounded as if a clay pot had shattered, and it had come from… From the lower level, where the basement was. I made my way there, of course. I was getting tired of all the mystery and the strange goings-on at night, and it was determined, this time, to find out the source of whatever had made that noise. I walked quickly but silently across the hall, past the servants’ quarters, and turned right into a narrow hallway which ended in a heavy wooden door which gave access to the basement. I found it open, thankfully – it swung in easily at the push of my hand and I made my way inside. I found myself at the top of the staircase which led down to the basement. Although I knew the layout of the place, I had scarcely had reason to come down here on more than a handful of occasions, and so I hesitated for an instant, looking down and straining my hearing to catch any noise a person down there might have made. I heard nothing, however, and after several seconds of indecision I started my way down as stealthily as I could. I did not know just why I wanted to hide the fact that I was exploring this area of the building late at night, but some kind of instinct told me that it might be best if I were not discovered. Therefore, my steps were as quiet as I could make them. Illumination was not a problem. There was an electrical switch at the top of the stairs which had been previously turned on by whoever had preceded me. Several electric lights ensconced at regular intervals along the walls now provided ample brightness, therefore. I did not know whether they were always kept on or whether the person down there had turned them on temporarily, but they made the going much quicker. Once I had made my way down to the main landing, I quickly saw the object responsible for the noise which had originally alerted me. A porcelain vase lay shattered on the floor, next to an ornamental table from which it had presumably been knocked down to the ground. I examined the fragments for a moment, but found nothing worthy of more attention and so instead I looked down the low-ceilinged corridor to try and find the person who was here. The corridor was somewhat long, and the very end of it was in darkness. Along its length, there were several cells for storage of various things, and I looked into each one as I quietly made my way forward. The first two on either side of me held nothing but foodstuffs. They were large and quite generously stocked with all manner of preserves in glass jars, sacks full of what could only have been flour or grain, cured meats hanging from hooks on the ceiling, and row after row of tin containers filled with things like sugar, salt, tea, and coffee. The next two cells held spare equipment and fuel in the form of neatly-stacked firewood and gallon after gallon of gasoline for the generators. Beyond that, there was a locked cell which still held its solitary lead box full of deadly radium and nothing else. Opposite it, I saw a rather chaotic assortment of tools of various kinds, from gardening implements and sacks of dirt and manure to construction equipment, picks, shovels, and even a single bear trap on the floor. The metal gate to this cell had been carelessly left ajar. At the end of the corridor, in relative darkness, the final cell led to the well. I was still several steps away from it when I heard a loud splash. I made my way up to the gate in a hurry, hoping to go through, but it was locked. I tried pushing against it, but the metal bars held firm and so I was reduced to looking through them and into the space which had changed so much since I had first been here that I could barely recognize it. The well itself still occupied the center of the cell, but it was larger than I remembered. There was no direct illumination inside the space, but even in the gloom I could see ripples on the surface of the water, the aftermath of whatever had jumped into the well. Mystified, I rattled the gate to see if I could shake it loose. The lights went out at that instant. I froze where I was, looking back down the hallway which led to the staircase I had recently descended. Someone must have heard me and turned off the lights using the switch at the top of the stairs. I swallowed, feeling guilty, and took a couple of steps back in the direction I had come. “Charles?” I asked in the dark. I could not even see my hands in front of my face. “Henry? It’s Daniel. I’m sorry. I heard a noise and…” A noise interrupted me, coming from far down the hallway. I hesitated. It had sounded strange. “Charles?” I asked again. “Henry?” I heard it clearly this time in response to my voice. It was a choking kind of gurgle, clearly audible even though it was coming from a distance. I had previously heard such a noise before, that night I had stopped below the attic. It had come from beyond the heavy locked door that Charles had never allowed me to open. The tense silence was quickly broken by a dragging sort of shuffle and then a heavy thump. There was a pause, a shorter dragging noise, and another thump. Then again, and again. It sounded as if someone were dragging a heavy sack down the stairs, one step at a time. “Charles?” I said for a third time, but now my voice was small. The shuffling stopped, but then, horribly, it increased in tempo, drag-thump, drag-thump, drag-THUMP. I heard a faint crack after the last thumping sound, as if something heavy had carelessly stepped on broken porcelain. Whatever had been making the noises halted and then I heard it again, much more clearly now: the gurgle as if from a drowning animal… and my heart nearly beat out of my chest when I realized that I could see something in the darkness now. I could just make out, at the edges of my peripheral vision, two faint pinpoints of green-golden light that hovered around waist height at the landing of the stairs, dead ahead from where I was standing. Terror seized me when the dragging resumed, slowly, accompanied by the fragile noise of shattered porcelain being shoved aside by clumsy motions. The two pinpoints of light approached with each shuffling drag, and my horrified mind could do nothing but think that those were eyes, a pair of eyes that glowed in the dark and that were approaching, haltingly, but inevitably. I had the distinct impression that the eyes were fixed on me. Mind racing, I remembered that the cell to my left, the one with the odd assortment of gardening tools, was open. I took a single step in that direction. There was a very sharp gurgle coming from the end of the hallway and the eyes were raised as if in alarm. Then the thing screeched, it screeched, and rushed at me. I heard the dull slaps on the stone floor followed by more heavy dragging and the only thing I could picture in the total darkness was a corpse with no legs clawing its way towards me with its rotten forelimbs, eager to strike. I screamed. At the same time I impelled my limbs into frantic motion, feeling as if I were trapped in a nightmare where every step took an eternity and I could not coordinate my motion well because of the terror sizzling through my brain. I was certain my life was in danger, though, and so I sprinted to the left so fast that I slammed my head against the side of the gate, which I had been unable to see. I threw my arms out, ignoring the pain, and my right hand smacked into the sharp edge of the open gate. I grabbed onto it and pulled myself through, slamming it shut behind me with every ounce of strength I possessed. I was not a second too soon. The glowing eyes reached my position and threw themselves at the gate. I was assaulted by a stench that was equal parts rotten meat and rotten plant. The gurgling was so close now that I could also hear a sort of labored breath underneath it, the horrible huffing coming from the waist-high thing that threw itself once more at the gate. With another panicked yell, I pushed back against it and fumbled in the darkness until I found the bolt which would secure the gate. Whatever was on the other side was very strong – twice it almost managed to pry the gate open despite the fact that I had my entire weight behind it. On the third try, I used a momentary lapse in its horrible keening to slam the gate shut once again and lock the bolt tight with both hands. The creature crashed against the gate yet again and the force of the impact threw me back. I lost my balance and fell down on my bottom. I landed on what must have been a sack of dirt. The darkness was still complete and so I was unable to see anything but the eyes, the horrible eyes. I was at their level now, after having fallen down, and now that they were so close there was no doubt in my mind that they were watching me. Another vicious gurgle issued from an unseen source beneath them and the eyes never left my own, staring hungrily, accompanied by that nauseating stench that threatened to make me retch despite my terror. I could not speak. I could not move anymore. If the thing broke into the cell I was certain I would not be able to defend myself. The tension held for several agonizing seconds. There was shuffling, scratching, and that abominable breathing. Then the eyes turned away, in the direction of the well. I heard more shuffling. I heard that other gate being rattled as I had done. And then I heard… It sounded like something soft bursting. It sounded like bones snapping under enormous pressure. There was even more labored gurgling and weaker, slower dragging noises. An eternity later, there was a splash. Then nothing else. Nothing but the darkness, my pounding heart, and the certainty that I had stumbled into unspeakable horror which I would never be able to forget.
  13. I have, a couple times, taken relationships for granted, with friends for example, and I remember seeing those people again after essentially neglecting the friendship for weeks or months or even years and kind of feeling betrayed by the fact that their lives are so radically different now. A close friend might become just a friend or a friendly acquaintance over time and it hurts because I, at least, have felt irrationally sad at the way things change over time. It’s a selfish thing to do, to expect that others will essentially pause their lives or be forever trapped in some sort of stasis for you to drop by whenever you feel like it. I tried to capture a little bit of that in this chapter. Danny was so caught up in his own quest for external validation that he thought he could pause things and that Charles would just wait around like a book you leave, half-finished, and expect to resume exactly where you left it whenever you want. Three years is a long time. Much has changed at the Observatory. Charles has not been sitting idle. He has been investigating, learning, experimenting, and Danny might not be ready for the things Charles is beginning to understand.
  14. Alas, how often have I wondered whether things would have turned out differently had I acted otherwise than I did. If I had not left Charles alone to fulfill what both the law and my own conscience dictated to be my duty, would I have been able to stop the events which unfolded? Or were they perhaps unstoppable, destined to happen despite the pitiful amount of resistance that a single human being would have been able to oppose? Would we have found another way? Would we have been able to act before it was too late? And that terrible, soul-shattering misunderstanding at the end… could it have been avoided? These are idle musings, of course, but they are what keeps me awake at night in my old age. The ruminations, the conjectures, the cruel simulations of what could have been… I cannot stop them anymore. Not now, not with doom so close at hand. This will be, I surmise, the last peaceful night the world will know. I do not know what the morning will bring, but I am sure it will be laced with terror. I am too late. These memoirs will serve no purpose now, and they will bring no warning to those who might have acted, had we had more time. Nevertheless, they bring solace to me. The bittersweet act of recall cannot be equated with living, but it is the next best thing for someone who hears the hollow, patient, approaching footsteps of Death. I will not sleep tonight, and so I put pen to paper once again, shunning the typewriter on my desk and the abominable technological symbolism it stands for. If nothing else, I would like to remember, to think back on it all, one last time. *** I traveled to Albany to hire builders who could help us seal the crater for good. It was to be a short trip, one week at most, and yet I did not return to the Observatory for three years after I left. I remember saying goodbye to Charles, asking him whether he had reconsidered coming with me. He kindly but firmly declined – he was happy in his own little domain, isolated from a world which had too often ostracized him for one reason or another, and I understood when he said he would be happy where he was, waiting for my return. He kissed me tenderly in the privacy of our bedroom the morning I set out. I shall never forget that kiss. As for me, taking the car and driving back to civilization was a cathartic experience. I had spent nearly all my life in the relative bustle of a crowded city and, although I had enjoyed my time with Charles immensely, part of me was desperate for more activity, for human contact, for the excitement of news and the feeling of being part of the irrepressible current of progress which our country was relentlessly navigating. I also missed my family, and in fact, upon arrival, I spent the better part of five days in nothing more than idle chat with my mother and sister, as well as evening talks with my father and his colleagues. My father’s attitude towards me, now that I was both financially independent and ostensibly successful in my pursuit of scientific endeavors, was a mixture of pride and satisfaction. I basked in the glow of my father’s smile when he would brag about my position as a friend and colleague to one of the richest men in New York to his clients and acquaintances when they visited our home. I had always struggled with feelings of insecurity, of not being good enough for my father’s lofty expectations of his only son, and it was a wonderful sort of relief to know that now he held me in high esteem, even if there was an unspoken shadow between us, a silent question: why had I never shown any interest in any of the eligible bachelorettes with whom I might have started a relationship long since? It was also good to catch up with both the relatively unimportant family minutiae, which for us were nevertheless matters of great significance, as well as with the greater happenings in the world at large. On the personal front, my sister was finally engaged to one Hans Quaker, a lawyer my father knew well. Though older than my sister by some fifteen years, he was a well-established man, of good reputation both professional and personal, and his intentions towards her had never been anything but formal and serious. I met him and spoke with him at length for a couple of evenings, after which I became convinced that he was a good match for Melinda and would be a welcome addition to the family. It was during one of these late-night conversations, over thick cigarette smoke, that Hans brought up the matter of the Great War for the first time. I had read about it, of course, and had been following its course for some time now, but I had been greatly alarmed at the shift in tone in the newspapers from the time I had left the previous year to now. Whereas before only rumors of possible American participation had been spoken, citing mostly idealistic reasons, now there was an unmistakable hostility directed at the Germans and the Austrians that appeared to foreshadow the inevitability of our joining the conflict. President Wilson’s fervent stance of neutrality appeared to be losing supporters, and there were predictions everywhere forecasting that Congress would formally declare war before the end of the year. I thought about these developments for several long hours that night. The following day I went to the University and spoke with many of my former colleagues. A draft was all but imminent, some believed, and many more had already volunteered, registering of their own free will in the event something happened. I spent much time thinking that night, too. To this day, I do not really know why I volunteered to fight. Part of it was undoubtedly out of a deep sense of civic duty, but now I suspect that the real reason I did so was to impress my father. I wanted to prove to him, and to the world, that I was a man in spite of who the object of my love could be. It was a way to prove my bravery, my masculinity. It was a way for me to ensure that I would never be criticized again. Of course, my physical disability made me ineligible for combat – but qualified mathematicians and physicists which could use their talents in complicated endeavors such as code breaking were in relatively short supply, and so, in April 1917, less than a month after I had returned home, I was sent to Chicago to work in the nascent field of wartime cryptography. My time of service was challenging but rewarding. I felt not only the satisfaction of doing my part for the war effort, but I also received respect and recognition unlike anything I had known before. I was exposed to many things I did not know existed and I was able to glimpse the world at large for the first time. My organizational talents and my drive for self-driven initiative were praised, and it did much to boost my self-esteem, which had never been the best to begin with. I was never in any physical danger, of course, but nevertheless I was received as a hero three years later upon my return to my family home. Though the nature of much of my work had been classified, and I could therefore not elaborate too much on it, this in itself appeared to further increase the respect others treated me with, from former University colleagues, to professors, to my father. He beamed with pride when he spoke of me to others, and that was the greatest reward I could have hoped to receive in exchange for the privilege of serving my country. The time spent did not come without sacrifices, of course. Chief among these was the fact that I had not seen Charles in years, and I had not heard from him in months. He had spent all of this time still in the Observatory, and it was more than a month after my return that my letter notifying him of my intention to resume my work at his side received a curt, rather formal reply in which he stated that he would welcome my return and my contribution to his research. I was worried as I drove to the Observatory three weeks later, in mid-September of 1920. I did not know what to expect, particularly given the fact that communication with Charles had stopped altogether for nearly a year before I returned from Chicago. At the beginning, his letters to me had been lengthy, descriptive, and emotional. I still carried them with me everywhere I went. The first one he had sent after I had told him of my intention to volunteer had been encouraging and rather sweet. In it, he had told me that, while he would have preferred that I return to his side as soon as possible, he understood and respected my decision. He hoped for my safety and even mentioned that he was proud to call me his… close friend. After I was sent out of state, we exchanged monthly correspondence for the better part of a year. I always told him how I was feeling, how I missed our work together and how I hoped the war would be over soon so I could return. He, on his part, kept me updated on the progress of his various projects. He was very excited when he finally began construction of the parabolic array which would beam electromagnetic information out into the stars, calling out to whomever or whatever would be able to listen. He also explained at length how he had developed what he called a mechanical parsing station which would be able to decode incoming transmissions which his array might receive, a machine of his own invention which, he admitted, was woefully inadequate to the task but would still be a help in making sense of any patterns he might be able to detect. The general timbre of his words was hopeful and curious, two of the characteristics I prized most in Charles’s personality. This changed during the second year. I still sent him monthly letters, but his replies took longer and longer to reach me. When I inquired about this he merely said he was much too busy to dedicate time to anything but pressing matters of research, and during the third year I received only one letter from him – then silence. Had it not been for the fact that Charles was in regular communication with my father for matters of administration of his dwindling fortune, I would not have known that he was okay until after my return. I had even doubted that the letter I sent as soon as I arrived back in Albany would receive a reply, but I had gotten one, at least, even though its dry and professional tone was much removed from the warmth of our earlier correspondence. It was therefore with a mixture of anticipation and nervousness that I arrived at the gates of the Observatory complex late one Friday afternoon. Things had changed, and my first inkling of this was the fact that the gate was watched by two men who demanded that I identify myself before allowing me through. They appeared to have a direct wire line to the Observatory itself, since one of them disappeared for a length of time while I waited in my car, only to come back a short while later and say that I was expected. He gave me directions to the main building as if it were my first time visiting. I merely thanked him and drove through the gate, onto a paved road which I had not expected to find. Even from afar, as my vehicle rounded the bend in the valley which allowed me to see the property under the setting sun, I could see that the gate was not the only thing which had changed. Whereas before both the main building and the Observatory tower had been surrounded by small but orderly gardens and pathways which had given the place a charming air of both mountain resort and bucolic simplicity, now the impression I received at a glance was one of cold, efficient severity. Neatly-trimmed hedges at right angles served as boundaries between three distinct areas in the property. The first one, the main building, remained much as it had been a few years ago, with the exception that the walls had been painted a drab shade of gray which was extremely unattractive. The windows on every level were now barred with what appeared to be wrought iron, and there were electric lights set at regular intervals along the perimeter of the edifice which I saw turn on as I drove further along the smooth road ahead. Although utilitarian and no doubt installed due to a logical reason or another, I did not like the changes. They made the place seem like either a sanatorium or a prison, and the effect was oppressive. Not once, not even when Charles and I had visited this location after nearly a decade of neglect, had I felt unwillingness to approach the place. Now I did. Connected to the main building by another paved road which was both much too wide and much too short to have warranted asphalt, the observation tower stood stark against the darkening sky. It had not changed much itself, but now it was surrounded by a wall and the only entry into the inner courtyard which would then allow passage into the Observatory itself appeared to be a gate which, unless the distance deceived me, look heavy and imposing, and it was shut tight. Tall hedges grew along the wall as if trying to hide it from view from the ground. Whereas before it had been an inviting building, and one of my favorite places, I now felt not the slightest desire to go visit such a forbidding location. But, of course, these changes were small, unworthy of much attention, when compared to the largest transformation which had taken place on the section of the property which had previously been the crater left behind by the meteorite. There, instead of the familiar bowl- shaped indentation on the ground, I saw the culmination of years of work and undoubtedly much of the remaining Wentworth fortune, in the shape of an enormous parabolic antenna. It was an arresting sight, even from afar and with insufficient light. The antenna bowl appeared to be made of solid concrete and it occupied every square inch which the crater had formerly hollowed out. Its scale was such that it was only when I was far away and looking at it from above that I could properly get a sense of its structure and dimensions. The parabolic bowl was big enough to contain a small lake. I could not imagine the amount of raw material that must have had to be brought to this place simply to build such a structure. It had to be the largest of its kind in the world, of that there was no doubt in my mind. It could easily have been the centerpiece of a world’s fair, and I was surprised that no mention of the true scope of this endeavor had reached me, either through my father or through the newspapers. Surely the mere act of building such a gigantic apparatus would have been enough to get Charles’s name in print throughout the entire state. The fact that it had not been appeared to indicate that Charles was purposefully refraining from any fame which this endeavor may bring him. But why such secrecy? Had not one of Charles’s goals been to eventually become recognized and honored in his field of study? The futuristic array held my gaze all through the long drive down into the valley. Even when darkness threatened to set in I could still see the three tall pylons which were set along the perimeter of the bowl, each one easily half again as tall as any of the surrounding trees. Lights blinked along their length, and these slender but sturdy-looking towers were connected to the parabolic array and to each other by a series of taut cables which must have been made of metal, the purpose of which I could not fathom. A tall crane stood off to the side, mighty and robust. Its arm stretched out over the dish at a height of no less than 20 feet, and from its end there hung a complicated structure made of metallic scaffolding which supported a strange hemispherical device which must have been at least six feet in diameter. I knew enough about elementary trigonometry to recognize that this device hung at the precise point where the three-dimensional paraboloid’s focus would lie. Therefore, any incoming electromagnetic waves would be reflected by the dish and concentrated at this focus. Given the size of the thing, even minute signals could conceivably be amplified and analyzed. The opposite would also be true: resting at the bottom of the bowl, aligned with the suspended hemisphere of metal and glass, there were several smaller stations which reminded me of radio towers. I could only guess, but I suspected that their purpose was to beam a signal through the focus point and out into the dish, which would reflect the waves out into space very efficiently indeed. The entire contraption was futuristic to the point where I felt, more than at any other time, that Charles’s mind, its thought processes, and the consequences of such, were decades away from modern science or engineering. He was single-handedly advancing humanity’s understanding of the cosmos by leaps and bounds instead of steps. Whatever the end result of this, the mere act of its construction was already a monumental success and a testimony to the genius which acted as the driving force behind it all. I eventually reached the bottom of the valley and made my way up the immaculate yet stark driveway until I stopped the car in front of the strangely forbidding staircase which led to the heavy doors of the main building. A servant was already waiting for me, and I could not help but grin upon recognizing Mr. White, the butler, who opened the door to my vehicle with a smile of his own. “Mister Fenton, a pleasure to see you again,” he said, bowing slightly. His tone of voice sounded warm and genuine. “It has been too long, Mister White,” I replied. “Indeed,” he conceded. At a sign from him, a servant I had not noticed earlier approached the vehicle. I gave him my keys so he would be able to unpack my belongings, and I ascended the staircase with Mr. White. “It has been… three years, I believe?” “Just about, yes.” I said. He opened the heavy double doors for me. I stepped into the pleasantly warm space, the smell of which brought back memories very vividly. “How was the war? If you don’t mind my asking, that is. I – we, the old servants at any rate –, we hold you in high esteem, Mister Fenton. Volunteering to serve one’s country speaks volumes about a man’s character.” I could not help but smile at the compliment. I followed Mr. White to the dining room, which had been prepared for a single person. I sat down gratefully at the table and continued my conversation with him while a couple of servants brought me dinner. “The war was… interesting,” I said while I refreshed my face with a damp cloth and dipped my fingers in a water bowl to clean them. “I did not see combat action, of course.” “Of course,” Mr. White echoed. “You worked in the technical side of things, did you not? Highly secret, very important matters.” “Classified matters for the most part, yes. You must forgive me if I cannot elaborate too much on their nature. It was fascinating work, however. That much I can say.” He nodded to himself, as if confirming a suspicion he had held for some time. “A man of your intelligence, you must’ve done a lot of important things. Those Austrians never stood a chance.” I chuckled. “I’m afraid that would be overstating my contribution. I did learn much, though, and I feel satisfied with my time of service.” I ate while Mr. White stood nearby and our conversation continued quite pleasantly. I was served roasted venison, one of my favorite dishes, a fact which was not lost on me. Mr. White had obviously prepared for my arrival and he was succeeding in making me feel at ease and, most importantly, welcome. The one thing which could have made the evening even better was seeing Charles, and in fact, as I was finishing dessert, I began to feel slightly anxious and disappointed at the fact that he had not come yet. Surely he would have wanted to greet me? “Where is Mister Wentworth?” I asked White eventually, once my meal was over. Servants had cleared the dishes and I was enjoying a small glass of scotch. For the first time since my arrival, he looked somewhat uncomfortable. “Mister Wentworth –” “Is otherwise occupied,” another voice said. I looked to the left and saw a bespectacled man walking up to the table. I had never seen him before. “He sends his apologies and asked me to tell you to please make yourself at home. Tomorrow, time permitting, he will be sure to make some time for you.” I stood up, frowning. I had the distinct impression that the faint dismissive note in his tone of voice was no mistake. I walked over to him and offered a handshake. “Good evening, Mister…” “Giuliani,” he said, reciprocating the handshake weakly. His hand was soft and somewhat clammy. “Henry Giuliani, Assistant to Mister Wentworth. Please, call me Henry.” I blinked. “Henry. I am Daniel Fenton,” I said automatically. “A pleasure,” he said, smiling. The smile did not reach his eyes, however. I stepped back from Henry, half subconsciously I suspect. I took stock of him. He was shorter than I by a few inches, slim of build in a way which bespoke a certain fragility, as if he had never known manual labor in his entire life. Very pale skin contrasted sharply with black, wavy hair which he wore somewhat longer than I was accustomed to seeing in men after three years of war time. He must not have served, then, although he was younger than I by at least five years, which meant he was squarely inside the demographic for young men called by the draft and had been so since the beginning of the conflict. Odd. He wore very stylish clothing which made it seem as though he were just about to go to a ball, and his features were quite handsome and aristocratic. Nevertheless, I felt a slight but undeniable aversion to him which I could not quite place. Perhaps it was the fact that the flowery perfume he wore was overpowering, or the way in which had spoken to me, or even the appraising look he gave me at that moment which must have mirrored my own. “I finally meet my predecessor,” he said with a thin smile. “I have heard much about you from the servants, I must admit.” Aversion was quickly kindled into outright dislike by that utterance. It implied several things, none of which I liked. “Where is Mister Wentworth now?” I asked rather directly. Henry shrugged apologetically. “I’m afraid he is busy at the Array. We have just had a burst of quite promising emissions which we hope to parse and in which to perhaps find a pattern other than simple chronological recurrence… But you must forgive me for mentioning such boring and complicated scientific details. Charles and I scarcely think about anything else, odd and dull as it may seem to outsiders.” “Is that so,” I said in a steely voice. His overtones were not lost on me. The implication that I would not understand their work. The casual familiarity with which he referred to Charles. “Please, let me show you to your room,” Henry said. “You must be tired after your trip. White, is everything ready for Mister Fenton?” “It is,” Mr. White answered, and he and I exchanged a glance that spoke volumes. “Should I show Mister Fenton…” “Nonsense, we want to make him feel welcome after such a long absence,” Henry interrupted. Then he directed himself to me. “Please, this way.” I followed him down the hall, nodding acknowledgment to the servants I recognized along the way. Force of habit let my steps straight to the door of the bedroom I had shared with Charles. I stopped and waited for Henry to open the door. He chuckled. “Your room is this way, Mister Fenton,” he said to me, pointing to the bedroom I had originally occupied when I had just moved into the property. I frowned and hesitated. I could have imagined it, but upon seeing my hesitation, Henry’s thin smile got wider. I decided not to argue and followed him to my previous lodging. He opened the door for me and showed me in. Mrs. Thompson, one of the maids, was busy at work preparing the fireplace and the bed. “Mister Fenton, it is so good to see you again!” she said to me, making an adorably archaic curtsy. “Likewise, Mrs. Thompson. I hope you have been well?” “Very much so, thank you. It has been too long.” Henry cut in. “Mrs. Thompson, if you would kindly finish here as soon as possible, I’m sure Mister Fenton has had a tiresome trip and he wants nothing more than to rest instead of having idle chitchat. Please make haste.” This time I actually turned to look at the obnoxious youth pointedly. He merely kept smiling in that annoying way of his. I then exchanged an apologetic nod with Mrs. Thompson, who looked hurt by the way in which her warm greeting had been cut short. I did not know what game Henry was playing, but the war had taught me many things. Chief among them was how to recognize an enemy when I saw one. I decided to bide my time and offer nothing more than bland pleasantries until both Mrs. Thompson and Henry had left me alone in my room. They left rather soon, thankfully. It was as if Henry could not wait to take his leave. Once on my own I wondered where Charles was, and whether he really was working. Why had he not come, even to say hello? We had not seen each other in three years and I was… I was hurt that the servants had seen fit to prepare for my arrival and make me feel at home and yet he had not taken even five minutes out of his day to come greet me. I wondered just to what extent things had changed during my absence. I wondered whether Charles even wanted me here anymore. Though I was tired, the first few hours of that night brought me no rest. Sleep eluded me. Thoughts and memories went round and round in my head, both from my time away and from the time I had spent within these walls. I finally gave up on trying to sleep when I saw the first hints of tenuous moonlight through the small window across from my bed. I got dressed once again and decided to seek Charles out in person so we could talk. I could have waited for the morning, of course, but I knew that I would not be able to rest until I found out exactly where I stood with him. What had happened in the interim from my departure to my return? Who exactly was this person who called himself his assistant? And why was I getting the distinct impression that there had been an ever so slight hint of fear in the demeanor of all the servants? It could have been that my mind was running wild, but I needed to be certain and so I opened the door to my room and stepped out into the darkness of the hallway. It was well after midnight by then, and the silence was nearly complete. The only thing I could hear, faintly, was the low hum of the electrical generator in the basement. I walked quietly in the direction of the main entrance, not wishing to disturb anybody. I still knew my way around well, and walking through the Observatory at night was second nature to me from the many nights spent watching the stars in Charles’s company. I left the main building and stepped out into the warm night, unbuttoning my jacket. Once outside, I took a moment to simply breathe and take in the calm wonder of nature which surrounded me. I had missed this, I realized right then. Being away in a large city had been good, interesting, and very stimulating, but it could not compare to the serenity of a mountain valley like the one in which I found myself. I could hear crickets hidden in the bushes, and the low rustle of leaves as they swayed under a gentle breeze. The air smelled clean and invigorating, possessing qualities which I could not quite place but which appeared to reach deep within me and give me clarity of mind as well as an unexpected sense of strength. If only it had been as dark as I remembered. This one detail was missing, and after my brief pause, as I started walking down the path which would lead me to the Observatory tower, I found the harsh illumination from the new lamps increasingly jarring. Before, when Charles and I had first moved here, the darkness of night had been all but impenetrable. Now I felt as if in the middle of the city, making my way on a paved road and passing post after post crowned with a harsh bright lamp which shone down on me. It made the place seem larger, in a way. It also made the once-familiar path to the telescope unnerving. It felt as though I were being watched by an unseen guard, despite the late hour. It made me feel, somehow, as if I were trespassing on private property without an invitation. The sound of my footsteps seemed much too loud for me, and I hastened to reach the Observatory tower as fast as I could. Once there, I arrived at the gate I had seen earlier. It was closed. I looked through it – the cupola which housed the telescope was dark and the windows showed no signs of light either. Nevertheless, I wanted to go inside and see whether I could find Charles upstairs, perhaps, like he had so often been in the past, puzzling over his incomprehensible data ledgers. I tugged on the gate experimentally near the place where it would open, but it was shut tight and it would not budge. I do not know why it bothered me so much, but my mood turned sour after a few more seconds of trying to get in unsuccessfully. No door here had ever been closed to me in the past. There had been no need. Now everything was different for some reason, and the vague air of obsessive secrecy that I had detected ever since my arrival took on a more evident, more oppressive air. I was annoyed. As I made my way back to the main building I caught sight of the Array, as Henry had called it: the parabolic antenna and its surrounding apparatus. The tall pylons blinked in the night sky, and without really deciding to, my steps took me in that direction. I wished to see, up close and for myself, the complete transformation of what had been a crater and which now was a gigantic, slightly monstrous machine for beaming information up to the stars. Perhaps I would find Charles there, I told myself as I got closer. At the very least I would be able to gaze upon the fruits of what had been, undoubtedly, a titanic undertaking of engineering which proved beyond a doubt that Charles was able to make his concepts and visions into physical reality. With slight bitterness, I realized that part of me was regretting having left for three years. I had been preoccupied about myself only. I had wanted to prove to my father, and to the rest of the world, that I could display bravery. I had done it. Nobody could fault me having postponed my own desire for scientific investigation in favor of helping my country in its time of need. Why, then, could I not shake off the thought that I had acted selfishly, leaving Charles alone? His letters to me, at the beginning, had been full of mentions of how much he missed me. I had liked reading those letters. The fact that he had then stopped writing had bothered me more than I had been able to admit up until this moment. I needed to talk to him. That would set everything right, I was sure. I had always been prone to making perceived problems or difficulties bigger than they really were, through my tendency for obsessive thinking. It would be best if I could sit down with him for a while and talk things through. I thought I was sure to find him at the Array. When I got there, however, I found it impossible to get close to the actual parabolic dish. There was a wall, a fence, surrounding the area. The path I had been following ended in yet another forbidding, heavy metal gate which proved as impossible to move as the one barring access to the Observation tower. Worse, this gate was made of solid metal plates which did not even offer a glimpse of the terrain beyond. I did not understand. The entire architecture of the complex now reminded me more of a classified military facility than a mountainside retreat, which this place had formerly been. And yet now nothing was accessible, everything was harshly illuminated even in the dead of night, and I could not shake the distinct impression that I was still being watched, though by whom and from where I could not say. The night was as calm as ever, but my mind was in angry turmoil as I made my way, disappointed, back to the main building. What was going on? Why was everything so familiar, and yet so very different? It made no sense. The scale of the Array and all the security measures everywhere bespoke a very large enterprise with a correspondingly large demand of manpower, and yet, aside from the two new guards I had first encountered when I arrived and Henry himself, I had not seen any new people around. It gave the place an eerily empty atmosphere where before I had only experienced peaceful isolation. I reached the main building again, walking quickly in my annoyance. As I was rounding the corner in the path which would take me to the entrance, I saw a flicker of light above me. Curious, I stopped and looked up. The light was coming from one of the windows in the attic above my own room, but it was very faint and erratic, as though generated by candlelight alone. I was surprised to see it, both because of the late hour and because, during my previous time here, the attic had remained stubbornly empty of anything and anyone since Charles had claimed that, from time to time, he enjoyed being up there by himself to clear his mind and focus his thoughts. The light died off quite suddenly, almost as if its source had been snuffed out. Then I heard the moan. It was a low, grating, and yet somehow shrill sound which reached my ears through the window. At first I thought it was a person in pain, but the moan shifted, acquiring a gurgling tone which no human throat would have been able to produce. I felt goosebumps and actually took a step back from where I was standing in an irrepressible reflex of aversion and primal fear. I experienced the irrational desire to cover my ears, to block out that horrid sound, the source of which I could not place and the notes of which threaded themselves through the darkness of the night and made it menacing when before it had merely been watchful. I took another step back without looking, without thinking. I tripped on something and stumbled back, barely avoiding a fall, my heart racing. At the sound of me tripping, the moan stopped. I was still looking up. I might have imagined it, but the fickle moonlight and the radiance of the pathside lights appeared to show me a dark outline which walked up to the window high above me. The dark outline stopped where it was, motionless. I could see no details. I was not even sure whether I was really seeing something, and yet… At that moment I was sure, absolutely sure, that someone or something up in the attic was looking down at me, staring from the darkness, pinning me down with its glare. I could see nothing, hear nothing, and yet there was an avid quality about the shadows that appeared to want to reach out and engulf me. I broke the spell of my own terror come out of nowhere and left that place with quick strides. I pushed the heavy door of the main entrance open and all but slammed it shut behind me, remembering only belatedly that it was very late and I might startle someone. Indeed, as I made my way to the physics laboratory to get something for my nerves, I saw Mr. White emerge from the servants’ hallway with a mildly alarmed expression on his face. I excused myself with a gesture and he nodded with a strangely understanding smile. I did not question this – I was much too flustered and I did not want to speak with anyone just then. I went into the laboratory, which thankfully was not locked, and poured myself some scotch. Only after finishing the glass did I begin to feel foolish about my irrational outburst of baseless fear. If there was someone in the attic, I would soon find out. I would simply go check. I left the laboratory and walked down the hall. I reached the narrow staircase which led up to my destination, and went up the stairs, two at a time, without giving myself time to hesitate. At the end of the climb I stood in front of another confounded door which had not been there before. It was heavy and appeared to be reinforced by metal, almost like the door to a prison cell. I grabbed the handle and pulled. Locked, of course. Fuming, I stormed back downstairs in the direction of my room. As soon as I was in the hallway, however, I noticed something that drove everything else from my mind. Charles’s door was open and there was light coming from within his bedroom. My heart leapt in my chest despite myself. I headed there and crossed the threshold without knocking. Charles was sitting on his bed, wearing a sleeping robe, looking just like I remembered him. He glanced up, and our eyes met. There was a pause. Hello, Charles, I said then, smiling. It has been a long time. Daniel, he signed, sitting up straight in a way that suggested alarm, or surprise. You’re here. Yes. I walked up to the bed. I had planned to sit down next to him, but something about his demeanor made me hesitate. Instead, I remained awkwardly standing. They told me you were busy. Charles glanced at the door, which remained open, then back at me. I was. We are making a lot of progress. I am decoding a particularly interesting signal that appears to be suspiciously regular. I am almost certain it comes from a pulsar, but in case it does not, there is some mathematical analysis which can help me determine whether the regularity is merely… His gestures trailed off as he appeared to realize that he was doing the silent equivalent of mumbling, expressing things very fast as though afraid of the silence, or perhaps afraid of my questions. I held his gaze until he looked away. It was not my imagination – he was uncomfortable. I worried about you. I told him. I wondered why you stopped sending letters. He would not meet my gaze now. I was busy. Much has happened since you – since you left me. I blinked. Left you? Charles, there was a war. A war for able-bodied men to fight, he retorted, and there was a clipped curtness to his gestures which had the same effect as words spoken in a resentful tone. You didn’t need to go. They wouldn’t have drafted you. They didn’t draft me. I felt myself getting defensive. I am proud to have served my country. It would have been cowardice not to act. “Implying what, exactly?” Charles said aloud. I knew him well enough to realize that, for him, using spoken words was a way to distance himself from the conversation. “Am I a coward, then?” “That’s not what I meant and you know it.” He shook his head dismissively. “It does not matter anymore. My work continues and it is more important than any war.” “Is that why you did not come see me earlier today? Have things really changed so much?” He looked at the ground for an instant as if remorseful, but then his expression hardened. “You do not understand.” “What do I not understand?” When he next spoke, Charles’s voice appeared to waver between anger and sadness. “I thought you would never come back. I thought you would stay in Chicago. I was very surprised when you sent me that letter a few weeks ago asking to return. But now you are here and I don’t…” I don’t what? I prodded, reverting to sign language again. It forced Charles to look at me instead of away. He looked up at my face and for an instant he was the old Charles I remembered, vulnerable and open and kind. His lower lip trembled. He lifted his hands as of about to speak, to explain what he meant. “Here’s your sandwich, Charles!” a jarringly bright voice called out from the doorway. “Extra pickles because I know you love them before bedtime.” Charles looked down as if trying to disappear. I glanced over my shoulder to confirm what my ears had already told me – Henry was standing at the door, carrying a silver tray on which two sandwiches rested, as well as a couple of steaming cups of tea. He was shirtless. He smiled at me in that particular way of his as he sauntered into the bedroom and set the tray next to where Charles was sitting. Then Henry sat down next to him, on the bed, with easy familiarity. I felt the blood drain from my face at the same time that my heart beat painfully fast in my chest with the anger and betrayal of my sudden realization. I hid it behind a bland noncommittal smile to mirror Henry’s own as he watched me, blinking innocently, almost as if daring me to make a move. I looked at Charles. He was still glancing away, as if hiding from me, and his silence could have spoken no more loudly. “Good night then, Charles,” I said formally, using the practiced tone I had used when speaking to my superiors during my service. “I look forward to us working together again.” I received no answer. I declined acknowledging Henry any further and left with slow, dignified steps which eventually led me to my own bedroom. I opened the door and shut it tight behind me. As I was undressing for bed, Henry’s loud laughter reached me through the wall which connected the two rooms. I got into bed in the dark, telling myself I did not feel anything in particular. My quick pulse was surely due to the strenuous journey of the day. The pressure in my chest was probably just stress and nothing more. The sweat beading on my brow must have been there because the night was unseasonably warm. The tears rolling down my cheeks, as I sat alone in the big empty bed, were due to anything but the pain of a broken heart.
  15. Several questions, and I can’t wait to reveal the answers! Thank you as always - I hope the coming chapter will prove as intriguing as this one!
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