|The Transformation Story Archive||Strange Things and other Changes|
C&C aapreciated, requested, begged for. :-)
Chapter IThe year was 1998. The year The Asteroid came.
It hurtled downward, blazing a brilliant streak of fire across the backdrop of a lonely night sky. Into a hill crested with pine it tore, leaving a smoking trail of wood and earth. For hours afterward, the ground quaked with aftershocks, shuddering, uneasy with the strange visitor from beyond.
Pleasant View, Washington was a small, country town. Harsh winters and humid summers gave the people a rough edge, a demeanor that spoke of the weary battle between man and nature fought month by month, year by year. Visitors were rare, and rightly so. The town had remained pretty much unchanged in the past century or so, with only a radio or digital watch here and there to tell of the inexorable creep of time. Population 327, now mostly older folk, as the young 'uns left to see what wonders the world beyond held. Even that figure had stayed fairly constant. But that night, the figure grew by one. And that one was a most unwanted visitor indeed.
"And I tell you it soft landed! Here..." Mark handed him the printout. "See for yourself. At that speed, it should have fragmented. It should have left a mile-wide crater. But it didn't, and I want to know why."
Jeff sighed. "If you want to go chasing after every UFO sighting and voodoo shit like that--"
"Dammit, don't start on me! This isn't about that, and you know it."
Mark's fascination with the sky extended to some rather unorthodox interests, that much he knew. Him looking at everything through those rose colored glasses tended to grate after a while, but Mark was right. There was something very definitely odd about this meteor of his. Still, Jeff resented being upstaged. By all rights, the sky mapping project should have held top priority. But Mark's little hobby had a way of tying priorities in knots, and this was bound to be no exception. Fate can be, and certainly was, depressingly monotonous.
"All right, all right, whatever. I'll send through a requisition for a truck and equipment for a two man team. Take a week, if you want. I don't care. It's your ass."
Mark grinned. "Thanks, Jeff. Volunteers for my second?"
"Gullible I might be, but I'm not stupid. Take a student or something. I've got stars to look at."
"Sometimes I think that's all you look at." He shook his head. "C'mon, you broke up with Joyce almost six months ago. Mellow a little, will you?"
"I said she's seeing someone, okay? You're too damn nosy, you know that?"
"Yeah, some grad student. So don't team up with any blond guys, okay?"
Mark chuckled. "I'll try to remember that."
The scyth crept silently along the timber choked swath the meteor had carved. A light fog blanketed the sleepy valley town, giving the distant lights an eerie, ghostly appearance. The mists swirled invitingly. Come to me, they beckoned. I will be your cloak, your covering. Silent and unseen, the visitor made his way down into the valley.
Half a mile away, a dog barked as an old, rusty truck lumbered by. The scyth froze, searching. Tense moments passed without another sound.
He inched forward again, finally reaching a picket fence surrounding a dilapidated, weather beaten barn. Shadows flitted about, dashing inside, then out again in an otherworldly dance, to the mad screams of some invisible owl.
"Laura, did you close the barn door like I told you to?"
"I shut it right before supper, Pa. Why?"
Bill looked out the window. "Tommy's out again, then. Go call in your brother and lock up."
"It's not windy out, is it?" Martha sat on the sofa, holding her usual cup of lemon tea. "Tommy wouldn't swing the door around like that, would he?"
"Fool of a boy. I tol' him he could go see Lucas tomorrow after school. Looks like he needs a whoopin again."
The bottom stair creaked. "Tommy?"
"I thought I said you were not to be outside again after supper."
"I was only in the bathroom."
Bill stood up, glaring.
"Don't lie to me, son. I saw--"
A quavering scream sounded outside, suddenly silenced.
Dear Lord, no. Bill ran out into the yard, waving Martha and Tommy back inside. A few feet away, the barn door slammed shut, and an inky black, hunched shadow shot forward over the fence and away into the mist.
On the ground beside the barn lay a crumpled figure, clothes stained with mud. Bill gathered Laura in his arms, sobbing, trembling with fear.
"She's white as a sheet. What happened?"
"Some dog spooked her. It jumped over the fence and ran off."
Laura shook her head, wide eyed and staring with fright.
"If it wasn't a dog, what was it, dear?"
"...m-m-monster..." she whispered. "I s-saw..."
"It was a dog. I seen it jump over the fence, clear as day."
"I s-saw it! ...was p-playing with the d-door...d-d-dog can't--"
Martha brushed away tangled strands of hair, kissing her forehead. "Dear, you were seeing things. You were just scared, that's all. I want you to forget all about it. No go wash up, and you and Tommy get to bed."
The bottom stair creaked again, and the lights clicked off upstairs. Faint sobs slowly died away into an uncomfortable silence.
"You sure it was a dog?"
"Must have been. I can't imagine any of the neighbors scaring her like that, and the animal preserves are miles off. She'll settle down soon enough."
The scyth crept away into the darkness, carrying its prize. For the rest of the night, the barn was strangely quiet, and the shadows danced on alone.
Chapter II ----------
"Ye can't park that here! Hey..."
Mark got out of the van, leaving it running, half grinning at the shop hand angrily shouting and gesturing at him. "If you'd care to tell me where I could, I'd be happy to move it. I'm gonna be around for about a week, and I need a place to shack up. Can you help me?"
The hand scratched at a two day growth, half heartedly swatting at a passing horsefly. "Weeell, I don' know...ye could try the Petersen place, think he has a spare room. Other'n that, sorry." He squinted at the van, suddenly suspicious. "What brings ye all the way up here, if I might ask?"
"We're working out of CalTech, college down south. The meteor that hit day before yesterday, we'd like to have a look at."
"College boys, eh?" He grinned. "Jes' stay out of trouble, ye hear? We don' want no funny business up in these parts. No siree."
The hand limped away, grumbling about the rotten weather. Mark watched him go, chuckling softly to himself.
"What's the story? You find a place?" Dave, the hired help, stuck his head out the window, wiping away a heavy film of sweat.
"Yep. We'll hike up the hill tonight, after dinner." He smiled. "You 21 yet? There's this pub down the street..."
"Sir? We have a problem."
"What is it now, Lieutenant?" The general sighed wearily, shaking a slowly balding head. An early retirement seemed a better and better prospect, after over sixteen years in the armed services. Now posted at a supposedly 'quiet' early warning installation, the most exciting part of his day the reading of the maintenance requisition manifests, everything seemed a conspiracy to agitate his already jangled nerves.
"That meteor we read a couple of days ago? Either someone misread the data, or we have a bogey."
"Look, I know you're anxious to make a mark, John, but this isn't--"
"Sir, I respectfully request that you take a look at it yourself."
John handed him the flimsy, pointing. "There, and there. The stress of atmospheric entry should have torn it apart. And I don't think that impact velocity is wrong either."
He frowned, peering at the fuzzy print. "Any ideas, Lieutenant?"
"Maybe we should take a look?"
The general harrumphed, and shook his head again. "They'd have my head in a can. No, but keep an eye on it. If there's anything even remotely suspicious..."
"Sir!" He saluted.
"Carry on, Lieutenant."
The town would make a good base. Yes, he thought. I can begin here.
The scyth stood at the very edge of the wood, overlooking the sleepy valley. Tonight, perhaps tomorrow night, he would have to find a suitable biped. His time was growing short. And the natives would very likely be suspicious, as it was.
First, however, there was the issue of food. The scyth ran down the hillside on all fours, hugging the ground. For now, his presence must remain a carefully guarded secret.
A small creek burbled, winding its way around the foot of the hill, and he stooped down to lap up the precious liquid. More valuable than gold, here it flowed freely and plentifully, a thing unheard of on his world. Or rather, on what had been his world.
Across the creek, a low growl sounded, shattering his tranquil reflection. He looked up to see a large, shaggy creature slowly backing away on all fours. He stood, watching it curiously. The creature made a sharp, painfully loud sound, rapidly opening and closing its pointed snoot. Again and again, it repeated the noise. Unfortunate. It would have to be silenced.
"Ah, shit." Dave swiped at his arm, finally catching the mosquito that had been dogging him for the past ten minutes. "Why the hell didn't we just wait 'til tomorrow?"
"I told you to put on some of that Off."
"You said it would only be a few minutes."
Mark chuckled, pushing aside a thorny bush. "Even so, the bugs don't waste any time eating you alive."
"Ow! Dammit, why didn't you warn me?"
"Keep your eyes open and your mouth closed, and maybe we'll get along a bit better."
Dave grumbled. Eight bucks an hour was good pay, but there were times when he'd had second thoughts. Now, for instance. What was so big about some rock from space? No, he'd stick with economics, thank you very much.
"Hey, watch it."
"We're here already?"
"I did say it'd only be a few minutes, didn't I?" He grinned.
Dave made his way around the gully, looking over the meteor. "Hey, it's warm!"
"That's odd. I didn't think it would've cooled off that fast."
Dave shuddered. Maybe he should be a little more careful about putting his foot in it. Or his hand, for that matter.
"So what now? I mean, we're here. Can you tell me what we're supposed to do with this thing?"
"Do?" Mark thought a moment. "Nothing, really. Tonight, we just look at it. We'll worry about the rest later."
Dave climbed back out of the gully, sitting down beside it. "The rest?"
Mark joined him. "You know. Measurements. Mass, volume, composition, stuff like that."
"Uh huh. But not tonight."
"It's too dark."
"And we're just looking at it."
Mark laid back, looking up at a star studded night sky. "Call me curious. Call me crazy. Ummm...don't move."
Dave frowned. "Huh?"
"There's a timber wolf right behind you. No no, don't--"
He spun around, and the wolf started, padding away into the night.
"Why'd you do that? He was just looking us over."
Dave stared back at him. "What are you, a nature freak or something?"
Mark sighed. "I wish. Grew up in Tampa, Florida. The closest I ever got to this kind of stuff was the local library. Well, that and Busch Gardens. Anyway, wolves won't bother you if you don't bother them. I think."
Dave shook his head in disbelief. "Okay, I'll call you crazy. Happy now?"
Mark stood up, stretching. "All right, let's head back. I want to be ready by nine tomorrow morning."
Mark plunked down a huge plate of scrambled eggs and fried steak on the table. "Here. What do you think?"
"That's for both of us, right?"
"Of course. I'm not that hungry."
Dave grinned. Things were starting to look up.
"So, what made you take the job?"
Mark nodded, stuffing a large chunk of steak into his mouth. "Yeah, s'right. You're an e-con major. Figures."
He smiled. "Well...I was just a little curious."
Mark chuckled. Or at least, he tried to. The steak in his throat turned it into a cough. Choking it down, he grinned half heartedly.
"The food isn't that bad."
"Mmmph! Stop that, you're killing me." Still grinning, he stabbed at another piece of steak.
"Ehh, good mornin' t'ye!" The shop hand sat down next to them. "I see ye didn't waste any time gittin' acquainted, here. Mind if I...?"
"Go ahead." Mark sighed. "Ummm...your name is?"
"Oh, s'cuse me, s'cuse me! Ted's the name. Ted Anderson." He busied himself with an already healthy pile of eggs on his plate.
Mark stood. "Well, we'd better be going. Dave?"
"Hul' uh uh mimite", he muttered around a mouthful of eggs.
"Ehh, ye'll be off lookin' yonder at the meteor? I wouldn't trifle with it if I were you. It's a bad omen, it is."
Dave moaned, rolling his eyes.
The hand leaned back, scratching at his beard. "My, haven't ye heard? Two days ago, Bill Grumman's daughter, bless her soul, got spooked by the oddest lookin' dog she ever did see. She even says it weren't a dog, or at least her brother says so. She ain't spoke barely a word since. Just this mornin', their dog turned up dead, broken neck, over by that hill. Strange thing is, its skin was peeled back on one side, like an onion. Something took a good bite out of it, too. So I'd stay away from it, if I were you. Evil spirits an' bad omens, I say."
"Bill Grumman's daughter? Where's she live?"
"Right down the road and hang a left. Across the street from where ye parked before."
"Come on, Dave."
Mark looked back. "Still curious, aren't you?"
"Not sure anymore. Can't it wait 'til after breakfast?"
"It'll have to."
They looked at the shop hand.
"She's in school right now. Won't let out 'til three o'clock."
Mark sighed, shaking his head in mock despair. "All right. Breakfast first."
Dave grinned. They dug in.
The bell rang, loud and sharp, and the kids erupted out of the schoolhouse. Laura dove into the chaos, thankful the day was finally over. The incident had seriously shaken her, and school was becoming an ordeal, something to be dreaded. She was slowly withdrawing into herself, seeking refuge from the unknown and unknowable horror that stealthily crept into her dreams and nightmares. Awake or asleep, she could not escape it.
Tommy grabbed her hand before the wave of pressing bodies could carry her out of reach. "Let's go see Lucas."
She pulled away. "No..."
"Oh, come on. He'll take you for a ride in his tractor. Sides, I wanna go swimmin', and dad told you to stay with me, right?"
"I don't wanna go swimmin'."
"You don't have to if you don't want to. Kelly and Tracy will be there, though. Let's go!"
They ran down the road, and a small group of kids gathered, following. Laughing and chattering, the kids raced ahead of them, charging up the dirt path to Lucas Petersen's farmhouse.
The tractor rattled by, churning up a cloud of dust. It sputtered to a halt in front of the porch, as the kids clustered around.
"Now hol' on, y'all. One at a time." Lucas climbed off the tractor, pulling off a sweat soaked hat and hunkering down in front of the noisy crowd.
"Me first! Me!"
"I asked 'im yesterday, and he promised--"
"Now, all y'all, shush. Gimme ten minutes, okay? I've been working all day, and I gotta git inside for a spell. Come on, I'll git y'all a nice, col' glass o' tea."
"Would you know where she is?"
"Prob'ly with Tommy, swimmin' over at Lucas' place. Why?"
Mark shuffled his feet. "I heard from Tom Anderson she might have seen what killed your dog last night."
Bill chuckled, a great, rumbling laugh. "Heh. Tom talks too much."
"He said he heard it from Tommy."
"He did? Hmmm... I'll have to have a talk with the boy. He can't be goin' around spreadin' rumors like that."
"I don't think it's a rumor."
That raised an eyebrow.
"Well, I'd better get going."
"Did ye git it, Tommy?"
"Yessir. She didn't forget it again."
Lucas smiled, and his eyes lit up as Tommy pulled out the reader.
"Ye know, when I was your age, all I could think of was gittin' out on my own. Dropped outta school and learned how t' drive that tractor. Want to know somethin'? I wish I'da stayed in school, 'cause now I can't git nowhere or do nothin'. I'm stuck."
"You don't like this farm?"
"Not anymore. I thought I would, yes sir. But it's the same thing, day after day. I gotta do somethin' else." He shook his head. "Listen up, son. You stay in school and learn yourself good, ye hear? It may be all fun and games now, but believe me, it's a world a' difference once you's growed up."
He sighed. "Yessir."
"C'mon then. If you still want that ride--"
Tommy grinned. "Yes, sir!"
"Hey, Lucas!" Mark waved, flagging the tractor. It coughed twice, and ground to a halt.
"Can I he'p ye, Mark?"
"I saw Tommy, here. Tommy, I wanted to talk to your sister."
Mark cleared his throat. "Maybe we'd better go inside."
"She saw what killed your dog, I'm pretty sure."
"Hol' on a minute. What happened to the dog?" Lucas frowned, fixing Mark with a suspicious stare.
Mark waved him off, sheepish. "It got chewed up, that's all."
"More than that. Its skin was tore open all funny, and--"
"Tommy, wait. Lucas, I really didn't want to involve you in this, but I think I might need your help."
"Tommy and Laura. I think that thing'll come back, and I don't want them hurt. Can you keep them here tonight?"
"Now wait just a minute. Don't I have a say in this?"
Mark shook his head. "Tommy, what about your sister? Don't you think it's more important to keep her safe than take a chance it might get to her again?"
He looked down. "Well..."
"All right, then. Tonight, let's see if we can trap it..."
"A dead rabbit? What d'ye want with that?"
Mark chuckled. "Don't ask."
Lucas thought a moment. "Well...yeah, I can git one."
"Good. Where's Laura?"
Laura wandered down the leaf covered path, whistling tunelessly. the sun was low in the sky, and the reddish light filtered down through the trees above onto the ground, creating a thousand dancing shadows. She'd watched the others splash and play at the swimming hole, but she wanted to be alone. No one seemed to understand, or care. Well, except maybe Tommy. The memory haunted her, looming up in her mind suddenly, and she shuddered. At least it wasn't around here.
She stepped onto a loose stone in the middle of the creek. It wobbled slightly, but held. Jumping to the other side, she sat down and hung her feet in the cool water.
A long time ago, she'd come down with the flu, and had been bedridden for over a week. Tommy had been there the whole time, bringing her dinner, reading to her, tucking her in at night. She'd never forgotten. Well, that was Tommy. He wanted to be his own man, but was always too busy worrying about somebody else.
She smiled. If she'd been a boy...maybe she'd go swimming with him more often. Not that she really minded anyway, but she had her own little world. Everyone thought she was a bit strange, but she could let an entire day go by, just daydreaming.
She'd dream of running across the sky, picking the stars like flowers. Of getting her feet wet in all the creeks and rivers in the world. Of a spider spinning a whole house, out of web. Maybe she was a bit strange. On the other hand...
"Laura! Laura, where are you?"
"Right here, Tommy." She stood, stretching.
Lucas, Tommy, and Mark came around a bend in the path.
"We've been looking all over for you! We were worried sick--"
"What's the matter?"
Tommy sighed with relief. "We thought that monster mighta gotten ahold of you."
A few stars were fading into view. A fitful glow brightened the path, just a little. Somewhere nearby, a cricket started chirruping.
"It's getting late. We should get back to the house." Mark extended a hand. "Mark. Hi, nice to meet you."
She looked at it, then back at him. "Are you a friend of Lucas?"
"Not exactly. I wanted to talk to you about that thing..."
"Speak o' the devil..."
An inky black shadow rose up, sniffing the air. It turned, spying Laura.
Laura ran, jumping over the creek. The stone broke away from under her, and she slipped and fell headlong into the water. The scyth hesitated for an instant.
Lucas snatched her up, and they raced back along the path.
The scyth followed, curious. Down on all fours again, he covered the ground in quick, loping strides. Around the bend and past the swimming hole, then out of the forest.
Ahead of them, a lone window glowed with a flickering light. They made for the farmhouse, the creature following close behind.
The door slammed behind them. Mark sighed heavily.
"That was way too close."
Tommy stood next to the door, eyeing it nervously. "Why's it after Laura?"
"I wish I knew. But I'm not sure I want to find out."
Laura moaned, blinking awake. "Wh--what happened?"
The door handle turned ever so slowly, and the door creaked open. Outside, the scyth stood, waiting silently. Blackish-brown fur covered most of its body. Muscles rippled and bulged in its arms and legs. The legs were bent and shaped like a dog's, but they ended in sharp, taloned claws. The "hands" had long, bony fingers tapering almost to points. The face...what a face! It looked vaguely like a cat's, but that was mostly the mouth, filled with pointed, yellow teeth. Most terrifying of all: it had no eyes.
Laura choked back a scream, staring, horrified at the apparition standing a few feet away. "...upstairs. Let's go upstairs", she whispered.
Lucas put her down, but she cried out as her ankle gave way. He picked her up again and carried her up the rickety stairwell.
The creature watched them go. They disappeared down the upstairs hallway, and it closed the door again.
Mark let out the breath he hadn't realized he was holding. "This is too much. I can't take it anymore."
Tommy looked out the window. "Still out there. It's just sitting there, looking at the door! Weird..."
"It's waiting for something."
He nodded. "I think so."
"Where's Dave? He should have been back with that rabbit an hour ago."
"You don't think he's--"
Dave stumbled into the room, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. "Right here. What's up?"
"You get the rabbit?"
He walked back into the bedroom, emerging with a small, cloth bag. "Here. Bill was six bucks. You owe me."
Mark waved him off. "Fine, hand it over. We have a dinner guest."
Lucas thumped down the stairwell. "Laura'll be fine, but 'er ankle's twisted. She'll need to be off it for a bit."
"Do you have a gun?"
"Only buckshot, to clear the birds out of the field."
Mark frowned. "Damn. Looks like I'll have to do this the hard way."
He took the rabbit out of the bag.
"Be careful, ye hear?"
Mark opened the door. The creature was still standing there.
He closed the door behind him, and set the dead rabbit down. The creature eyed it, curious.
It picked it up, looking it over carefully. It took a few sniffs, cocking its head.
The creature stuck a pointed finger into the carcass, peeling back the skin and fat. It took an experimental chew, hesitating.
Sitting back on its haunches, the creature delicately cleaned away the bones, picking off every last piece of meat. Mark stood, entranced, as it finished off the last of the meal and set the remains on the ground in front of him.
It stood. They watched each other silently.
The creature slowly extended a hand, taking Mark's in its own. For several minutes, it looked it over, turning it around and back again, running a finger across his sweating palm.
It released him, finally. Turning, it vanished into the night.
For a long moment, Mike stood there, looking out into the darkness. As the saying went, curiouser and curiouser. Mark wondered. Where had it come from? Why was it here? Questions. Too many unanswered questions.
It was going to be an interesting week.
The scyth loped along in the darkness. They didn't understand. And he had neither the time, nor the method, to explain. His choices were fast disappearing. But the fragile trust he had accomplished would be shattered if he were to force the issue.
He paused. Perhaps they did understand. Perhaps...they were trying to refuse politely. He shuddered. For the first time, he was truly afraid.
The town was in chaos. Trucks full of uniformed men rumbled along the streets. Booted feet pounded in the dirt. Barricades were set up at the edges of the town, and armed troops stood by them, shifting around nervously.
"What the hell is all this?" Tom limped out into the street, dazed by all of the commotion.
"You'd better stay out of the way, mister."
"What's goin' on?"
"All you need to know is that we're blocking off the town. No one gets in, or out. Clear?"
"Shit. What about the grocery truck 'at comes through every week? 'at too? We ain't gonna stand by for this if ye starve us out!"
The sergeant harrumphed. "Arright, we'll search the truck when it comes through. But that, and ONLY that, you understand?"
"Is there a mayor, here? I want to see him."
"Ye lookin' at 'im. I run the store an' oversee the town."
He chuckled. "I want everyone to know. Anyone trying to leave will be shot."
"Ookay...I guess. Uh, how long?"
"Until I tell you otherwise. Now get going."
"Great. Now what do we do?" Dave paced back and forth, agitated.
"Wish I knew."
Things were bad. If they found the creature, problem solved...in a sense. Mark didn't care to imagine what'd they'd do to it if that happened. He could only hope it wouldn't. But for now, all they could do was wait.
Mark awoke to see a shadowy form bending over him. Panicking, he rolled off the bed, ducking behind it.
The creature straightened up, looking out the window. A uniformed guard walked by, barely visible in the faint moonlight.
"Oh, I see." He got up, and smiled. "Be a little more careful next time. I have a weak heart!"
"Hey Dave. Come on, wake up."
Dave moaned, and rolled over.
"You lugnut. Get up! Or I'll sick the grim reaper on you."
"Aaah!" He jumped out of the bed.
"Listen next time." Mark chuckled. "He's hiding from the grunts outside."
"Yeah, well he can hide somewhere else."
"Don't tell me you want to go back to sleep."
He looked at the creature. "Don't think I could, now."
"Think we should introduce him to the rest of the gang?"
"Laura, you awake?"
Mark cracked open the door. "There's a whole bunch of army guys in town. I think they're looking for that creature."
"I hope they get him."
"Laura, I don't want you to be scared, but--"
She sat up. "What?"
He shifted uncomfortably. "Well, it's here, hiding from them."
The door opened. In the hallway behind him, she could see the creature standing there.
"Why--" she whispered.
"It's not going to hurt anyone."
"Are you sure? I mean, why did it come after me?"
He came into the room, and the creature followed.
"I don't know. But whatever it is, you're safe, believe me."
She stared at it. Of course she was afraid. The object of her nightmares was standing not two feet from her bed! But...something's wrong with it. She could tell. It looked almost, well...sad. And her fear melted away.
The creature looked at her swollen ankle. It touched it gently, but Laura cried out and it pulled back as if burned. It looked at her.
"It's not your fault."
Lucas walked down the hall and into the room. "I just wanted t' see if me little--" He paused, taking a step back and staring at the creature. "Am I interruptin' somethin'?"
Mark smiled. "Got another room?"
He ducked away. "I'll get back t' ye later..."
"Tommy, I'm beginnin' t' think we're livin' with a bunch o' crazy people."
Tommy grinned. "Nah. Certainly not Laura, anyway. So how's it going?"
Lucas sighed. "Well, I can understand it fine. It's just slow goin', I guess."
"Don't worry. I can stop by after school and help you. But I'd better get to bed now. I have to be there by eight o'clock sharp!"
"Martha, can you get the door?"
Martha put down the broom. "Yes, dear."
"Good afternoon, ma'am. If I could, I'd like to talk to your daughter for a few minutes." The sergeant pulled at a too-tight collar, squirming uncomfortably.
"I'm sorry. She's staying at a friend's house for a few days."
"Well, it's really urgent, ma'am. If you could tell me where she's staying--"
She sighed. "You know, there were a couple of fellows over here not too long ago, asking the same thing."
"Is that right..."
"Well, she's staying at Lucas Petersen's place. She should be back tomorrow after school, if--"
"No no, thank you. Umm, do you remember what these two look like?"
"No, can't say that I do. But they're rooming at Lucas' place too."
The sergeant took pause at that.
"Thank you again, ma'am."
This could be a problem. Civvies were notoriously hard to deal with. The sergeant wondered. What if they'd seen it? The girl's story could be dismissed as hallucination, but that might not be effective with these two. Professionals, very likely. Not given to such things. Then again, they might just be a couple of kooks on a UFO hunt.
The private took up step beside him. "Third sweep completed, sir. Still nothing."
"No tracks, no shit, no nothing?"
"No shit, sir." He cracked a slight smile.
The sergeant thought a moment. "All right. I'll send through a request for some dogs. Meanwhile, find out about these two new arrivals. I want to know what they've been up to."
He'd find that thing. Dead or alive, he'd find it. His orders were very specific on that. And it probably wasn't worth the trouble to bring it back alive.
"Look, fer the last time, she's upstairs in bed with a twisted ankle! She ain't talkin' t' nobody, no matter who ye are!" Lucas stood in the doorway, chest puffed out and looking mad enough to chew nails.
"I just have a few questions. If you could only--"
Lucas raised a fist. "Ye can stuff yer questions! Talk to 'er in 'bout a week, when she's feelin' better!"
The private grumbled. "Well, are those two out-of-towners around? Maybe I could talk to them."
"Yeah, hol' on a sec. I'll call Mark down."
The door closed rather more loudly than he'd expected. Well, the jackboot deserved it anyhow. He clambered up the creaky stairs.
"Mark? Army fellow wants ye."
Mark cracked the door. "I'll be out in a minute."
He turned around. "Laura, if he comes up here, don't say anything about the creature hiding out, okay?"
"All right, what do you want?"
"I just wanted to know if you'd seen anything odd up around here."
Mark chuckled. "Nope. Heard a lot, though. I'm up from CalTech, with the Astronomy department, taking a look at the meteor. It's not every day we get one that big that makes it down, you know?"
The private frowned. "Heh. How long you gonna be in town?"
"Only another couple of days. That is, if you let up this blockade. What's going on?"
"Sorry, that's need to know only. I'll let you know about the blockade as soon as I hear anything."
Damn. They were getting too close. He'd just have to be careful.
The bell rang, and Tommy was off and running. Less than five minutes, and he skidded up the dirt path to Lucas' place.
"Ah, glad t' see ye, boy." Lucas grinned. "Are ye ready?"
"Yep. Teacher gave me some math problems, but I can finish those up tonight."
"Thank ye, son. They's right, ye know. It's never too late t' learn!"
He grinned sheepishly. "I dropped outta school, Mark. Tommy's he'pin' me with me letters."
A slow smile spread across Mark's face. He'd just had the oddest idea...
Well, it was more than a couple of days. The grunts spent the next two weeks checking and rechecking every imaginable and unimaginable lead. Neither hide nor hair of the creature ever saw the light of day. But the sergeant was getting suspicious.
Somebody was eating well. Three rabbits, a chicken, and even a deer made their way through town. It wouldn't have been much to take notice of, except it was the same person, every time. Oh, no one remembered exactly who, conveniently. But it didn't take a genius to make an educated guess.
Then, there was the matter of Laura. She'd been holed up in that house ever since he'd arrived. Twisted ankle, they said. Maybe the food was for her. Maybe the schoolbooks Tommy was borrowing were too, but he doubted it. Maybe it was time to turn up the heat a little.
"You heard me. Her ankle's getting infected. I don't know what by. Lucas tells me the only doctor this town has comes through just once a month, so unless you lift that blockade--"
"Don't waste my time. Unless you're gonna let me see her, mister, we'll just wait." "Fine."
"Huh?" The sergeant looked surprised.
"I said fine. You can see her. But that's it, you hear? She's in a bad way as it is."
He knocked on the door. "Laura, you awake?"
The sergeant followed him inside. Her ankle was swollen, all right. The swelling was starting to go down, but it was covered with red blotches. Some bug had bitten her pretty bad.
"Now do you believe me?"
He nodded slowly. "I'll see about a doctor, but I don't know how long it'll take. Sorry to disturb you, miss."
Lucas escorted the sergeant out. Mark closed the door, breathing a sigh of relief.
"That was close."
He looked up. "You can come out now."
The trapdoor opened, and the scyth dropped down on all fours. He rose up, and looked at Mark. "Thank you."
"No problem." He still couldn't get over that hissing cough of a voice. But he was even more impressed with his speed at learning to talk in the first place.
"So what are you?" he had asked.
"Scyth", it replied.
He frowned. "Is that your name?"
He pointed at each of them in turn. "Human, human, human, human. Laura, Lucas, Tommy, Mark."
"So are you a skith, or is that your name?"
"Scyth", he agreed.
Well, that was productive.
The scyth bent to examine Laura's ankle. He sat back on his haunches, pondering for a long moment.
He looked at Laura. She was dangerously ill. Yes, he could help her, but should he?
It should be her choice. But she could die if he didn't act quickly. Maybe she would understand. He had to at least try.
"Laura iss hurt. I want to help you."
She smiled. "I know you do. But we have to wait for the doctor."
"Someone who knows how to help me. But it might be a while before he can come."
He looked down. "I am sorry for hurting you."
"It's not your fault."
Someone, please. Make the decision.
Someone who could help her, but who might not arrive in time. He could help her, but she might not understand the consequences.
Someone make the decision.
"Sir, there it is!"
The private handed him the binoculars. He looked...
"No, past the field. Near the woods."
There it was. Ugly mother, too. "All right, I want ten men with scoped rifles after it. Orders are to shoot to kill."
The night was young. He'd have that thing's head on a pike yet.
"Shit, where'd it go?"
"Spread out. Search the area in pairs. I don't want it getting away this time!"
They trudged into the woods. UV goggles made the going a bit easier, but they sure as hell didn't match sunlight.
Greg and Jimmy picked their way along the dirt path. One long strand of spiderweb lay across it, floating in the air. Greg waved it away.
That was one deep puddle.
A twig snapped, and two rifles went off. The timber wolf fell, letting out a final, faint yelp. "Damn. Arright, keep moving!"
The scyth raced along through the underbrush. Silent and quick, he made his way up the hill. The meteor sat at the end of its trench, a grim shadow in the moonlit night.
He pressed at the rock. Once, twice...and a bit lower. A small, dark tunnel opened, and he crawled through.
The controls hummed to life as he entered the spacepod. Of course, the gravdrive was still damaged, so escape was impossible. Not that he could leave even if he wanted to.
In a small aclove rested the box. He picked it up gingerly, cradling it in a crooked claw. Life. But not his. His was in twilight. He stood at the edge of a great precipice. And the rock beneath him was slowly crumbling away.
He emerged, and the tunnel closed behind him. Down the hill, and into the woods again.
"I see it. Get a rifle on it!"
Crack. The shot echoed through the air.
"I think I got it, sir."
"Good. Now get after it!"
Pain. Thick, black blood oozed down his side. He had much less time than he'd thought. Now there was no choice.
"I am hurt", he wheezed.
"That's the understatement of the year. Lucas, get me--"
"There iss no time. Laura...I need to ssee Laura."
He limped up the stairs, leaving a black trail.
"Oh my god..."
"Laura. I musst explain now." He choked, coughing up a spat of blood.
"This iss life. My life. Hhkk You musst choose. Hhkk I cannot..."
The rock crumbled away. The chasm yawned invitingly, and blissful, dreamless sleep took him.
"No. No, you can't die!"
She buried her face in the pillow, sobbing.
Somewhere below, angry voices sounded. The stairs creaked and groaned in agony, as booted feet pounded. Quickly, she pried the box loose and hid it under the sheets.
The private stared at the creature. It truly was more horrible in death than it was in life. A grisly caricature, taken from the worst horror film imaginable. He wrinkled his nose in disgust.
The sergeant stormed into the room, skidding to a halt in front of the dead creature.
"Looks like we got 'im. Arright, get me a bodybag."
He looked down at Laura, whimpering. "Sorry to disturb you again, miss."
The scyth was dead. Everything he'd ever hoped for, ever dreamed of. A visitor from the stars, come to commune with man. And they shot him down like a dog.
Mark sighed heavily. He wasn't looking forward to the star mapping project any more. Once...but now that he'd seen what was out there, there could be no joy in the tedious, unfeeling catalog of the billions of suns circling the heavens. More than one shone on a world cradling a tiny speck of life. But he'd never know which one.
Choose. He'd wanted her to choose. But what?
The box lay open before her. Inside, hundreds of tiny, pale gray spheres gleamed and glittered in the flickering lamplight. Like pearls. They were at least that valuable to him. But how, and why?
Life, he said. Something to help her. It was too late to ask how. But she trusted him.
The pearl dissolved in her mouth, running warm and slickery down her throat.
The swelling had almost disappeared, and the blotches were all but gone.
Lucas smiled. "It's a miracle."
"Good thing, too. I heard the doctor tried to come through while the blockade was up. He won't be back for another month." Mark sighed.
"So ye'll be leavin' us now?"
He nodded. "I gotta get back to work. And I can't afford to spend any more on Dave." He smiled slightly. "Eight bucks an hour. Cheap labor, he's not."
She took out the box. "I thought maybe I should give this to you. The scyth was trying to give it to me when--"
"Don't say it. Okay." He opened the box, frowning. "Any idea what these are?"
"No. But he said they would help me. And they did."
"You took one?"
She smiled. "Didn't it?"
He sat down.
"Maybe you shouldn't have done that. We could've called up the doctor, you know."
"But I'm all better!"
"Laura, I don't think these are medicine. Tell me exactly what he said."
She thought a moment. "My life, or something like that. He said that these were his life."
"I was afraid of that."
"What?" She was frightened now.
"Laura, they're his...well, her eggs."
"Ye mean, she's gonna turn into one o' them?"
"I think so, Lucas." He shook his head. "I'll stick around, I think. I feel kinda responsible."
"Should we tell Tommy?"
"He'll find out anyway. He's been over here every day."
Lucas sighed. "What'll we tell 'er parents?"
"Nothing. Lucas, if this spreads around town, those army guys'll be back. And this time, they'll take her, dead or alive."
He swallowed. Mark was right.
Mark avoided her eyes. "I have some bad news. Your daughter..."
She stood there, open mouthed.
"Is she hurt? What happened?"
"C-come in. Sit down."
They went inside, sitting on the sofa.
He looked away. "Her ankle got infected after she fell in the creek. We didn't know it had gotten that bad. She never said anything about it."
This was going to be harder than he thought.
"We found her in the woods. She...she couldn't stand being in bed any more."
Her lip trembled. Suddenly, tears were streaming down her face. Martha closed her eyes, crying in silence.
"They took away the body already. I'm sorry. I really am."
Leaden, he walked away, down the street. Which was worse? The lie, or the truth? Yes, her daughter was alive. But soon, it wouldn't be her daughter anymore, it'd be something else. Death was easier to deal with, ironically. For him, the pain had just begun.
"Look at me."
Tommy looked down.
"Please. I'm still your sister. I'll always be, no matter what."
"Tommy! I can't...I don't want to be alone any more. I'm afraid."
"I am too."
She was crying. "Look at me! I'm not a monster, am I?"
He looked at her. "But for how long?"
"Let's...let's just forget about it for now. I don't want to think about it anymore. We can go swimming."
"Okay", he said finally. "But don't let nobody see you. You're s'posed to be dead."
They walked through the field together. Even so, she felt alone. Before, she could find comfort in her own little world. But she needed someone, now more than ever. Just to be there. Soon, she wouldn't be able to share even this much with her brother.
"Hello, Jeff? It's Mark."
"Nice to hear from you", Jeff said sarcastically. "You done with your little vacation yet?"
"Sorry. You just wouldn't believe what's been going on here. The military blockaded the town for the better part of this month, and I couldn't get out."
"All I wanna know is, when're you coming back?"
Mark sighed. "I'm sending Dave back with the van. I need a sabbatical. I'm sorry to do this to you--"
"You're sorry? This is great. I can't handle all of this by myself. Who the hell am I gonna--"
"Wait, wait. Jeff, slow down. I'll be back. Put me on leave without pay, and hire a student. Maybe Dave."
"I need you. You're the only one who knows the ropes. You can eat, sleep and breathe stars 'til you're blue in the face, and everybody knows it."
Jeff was right. But there were more important things to keep him occupied than looking up at the night sky.
"Jeff... Well, I gotta go. I'll let you know when I'm ready, okay?"
Before he could talk him out of staying, Mark hung up. He wasn't sure why he was staying. There wasn't anything he could do. She would become like the scyth, like it or not. He didn't, either. Laura was trapped by fate, as sure as if she had died.
The first changes were hardly noticeable. Two weeks later, Laura seemed almost normal. Normal, that is, except for the fact that she couldn't see.
Every night, Tommy would read to her. For but a brief moment, she could dream beyond being blind. There was the eagle, searching the ground for the smallest mouse from miles above. There was the cat, eyes gleaming in the night. There was the scyth...
What? The scyth could see, though it had no eyes. She'd never thought to question how. Until now.
There were other things, too. How did it get here? Why here, and not somewhere else? Why did it leave home, wherever that was, in the first place?
Why hadn't she thought of these things before?
"Mark, what does 'inquisitive' mean?"
He smiled. "Why's that?"
Tommy sat down on the bed beside him. "I asked Laura what she was thinkin' about. The scyth. She said she was 'inquisitive'."
"Curious, Tommy. Curious. So am I."
"Well, how come she's using all these big words all of a sudden?"
Mark frowned. "Don't know."
But he did know. Or at least, he could guess. Apparently, the scyth was quite intelligent. Laura must be picking some of that up already.
He shuddered. She was turning into something completely alien. How did it feel? Did she understand, or even know what was happening?
She didn't deserve this. He knew that much.
A few weeks after that, they were in for another shock.
Tommy smiled. "You just ate."
"It didn't taste good. Is there any chicken left?"
"I think so. Can you make it down the stairs?"
"Of course, silly. I told you I can see."
He looked away. "Yeah. But it's kinda scary. At least keep your eyes open, okay?"
"Sorry." She opened her eyes again. "I keep forgetting."
"You always did have pretty eyes."
Laura smiled. "Save that for Kelly."
His cheeks reddened. "Hey! How did you know?"
She pranced down the stairs.
The pantry was usually locked up, but they had just eaten supper less than an hour ago, and the door was half open. A few chicken legs were salted and wrapped in cloth on a low shelf. She took one.
A glass of water, and she sat down at the table with a deck of cards. Tommy was busy with his homework, so it was Solitaire again tonight.
The game wasn't really that difficult. Sometimes it was impossible to win with a given setup, but she'd been lucky so far. Three aces up, and two kings on the table.
The chicken was dry and tasteless. It was something to snack on, at least.
The tabby cat jumped up on her lap, purring. She stroked it idly.
Four aces. And there was the six she needed. Now it was just a matter of --
"Felix! You naughty cat." She pushed the cat off the table, sighing. There went the game.
"Meow?" The cat jumped up on her lap again, purring.
She was hungry.
"I'm back!" Mark closed the door. "Anybody up?"
"Did someone leave the door open?
It's getting kinda windy outside."
Someone was sobbing softly.
"Laura, that you?"
And then he saw it.
She ran up the stairs.
He knocked on the door. "Laura?"
"Tell me what happened. Please."
He opened the door and sat on the bed.
"No!" She buried herself in the sheets.
"Laura, listen. No matter what happens, you're still the same person you always were. No matter what you look like, it's still you inside. Right?"
"I don't want to be alone. Everyone is going to look at me and think I'm a monster. I just can't live that way."
"There's nothing you, or any of us, can do to change that. You're going through things no one's ever experienced before. I know you didn't mean to hurt Felix, but--"
She sat up, looking at him. "I couldn't even stop myself! What if it'd been Tommy, or Lucas?"
He looked away. "I'll pick up some rabbits and chickens tomorrow. We won't let that happen, okay?"
She was right. And he was afraid of her now.
"Look at me."
"My hands and arms are starting to change already. My throat is starting to feel sore. My feet..." She pulled back the sheets. Her toes were starting to elongate into claws, and both feet were curving inward. "I can still walk, but I can't run like I used to."
"I'm not even human any more."
The changes were more rapid after that. Her skin turned grayish and thickened. Her eyes whited over and almost entirely disappeared. Most of her hair fell out, and her face...well, she was beginning to look like a scyth.
She turned, sensing his approach.
"We should take a look at the meteor. Maybe the scyth left something behind."
She nodded. She'd taken to keeping silent. A hissing cough wasn't the most attractive voice in the world.
"Lieutenant?" The general yawned lazily.
"This is...curious. That astronomer that went to take a look at the meteor? It's been three months, and he hasn't left yet."
That got his attention.
"Oh, yeah. He's started buying rabbits and chickens again, like last time."
"Think there might be another one?"
The general considered. It would make a lot of sense. Still... Hell, he was up for retirement anyway.
They climbed up the timber choked gully together. Ahead lay the meteor, looming large and silent.
Laura circled the meteor, pausing. "There'ss ssomething here."
"What is it?"
"I'm not sure."
She pressed against the rock. Once, twice...and a bit lower. The rock face swung inward, revealing the dark tunnel.
"There's no way I'm gonna fit through that." Mark sighed.
"Give me a minute." She disappeared into the tunnel.
He sat, leaning against the rock, pondering. They couldn't hide her forever. But what could they do?
She stopped, staring in wonder. The entire asteroid was a spaceship. There, the main computer bank. There, the gravdrive controls. And there, the cradle that would hold her as she slept, while the ship traveled through the depths of space.
She knew what she had to do. She hated it. Hated the scyth for coming in the first place. But there was no turning back.
"It'ss a sspacesship. But the drive iss damaged. That'ss why he crashed."
"You spent over an hour in there. You didn't find anything else?"
"I can fix it."
His eyes widened.
She looked away. "It hass a databank filled with the race memoriess of the Scyth. He wass the lasst one, fleeing a plague that devasstated hiss world. Thosse weren't eggss, they were capssuless containing genetically engineered virussess, programmed to mold a ssentient being into a scyth."
"Now he'ss dead, and I am the lasst. I know what I have to do."
"Let'ss go. If we're lucky, I can leave tomorrow."
"Leave?" Mark was taken aback.
"I can't sstay. You know that, and I know that. The human race ssimply issn't prepared to accept this kind of genetically engineered form. I know I wassn't."
"I have to go."
He blinked an unbidden tear away.
She smiled...sort of. "I'll alwayss remember you. All of you."
The trip into town was a long one, but well worth it. Even Tom Anderson's questioning stare didn't dissuade him. Well, it was his truck.
"What the hell is this?"
Tom pulled to the side of the road.
A stiff-looking soldier walked up to him. "Sorry, sir. The road's blocked off. You'll have to go back."
"I can't do that, ye lunkhead! I live here! Matter o' fact, I'm the mayor!"
The private frowned.
"Jes' git me someone in charge, ye hear?"
He grumbled, and stalked away.
"Think he'll let us through?"
Tom grimaced. "He better, if 'e knows what's good for 'im."
Another uniformed man approached them, decked out in brass. "What's the problem, here?"
"What's the problem? I'll tell ye what's the problem. Yer gofer here tells me I can't git through. Well, I'm the mayor of this here town, and ye'll let me through, or else!"
"Look, mister. We're trying to track down a dangerous criminal, and if we don't keep the town sealed up--"
"D'ya think 'e's gonna escape if I drive through? Well, do ye?"
The sergeant shook his head, muttering. "All right. But remember, no one leaves this town, period. I warned you."
The barricade was moved away, and they trundled on through.
Mark sighed with relief. "That was close."
"What were ye worried about, anyhow?"
He gave Tom a sidewise glance. "Never mind."
"Laura, we'll have to work fast."
"If I sstart tonight, an hour. Can you disstract them?"
He smiled. "Don't worry about a thing."
"Stop right there, or I'll shoot!"
Mark turned. "What the hell do you want?"
"Where do you think you're going?"
"For a walk. Got a problem with that?"
The private sneered. "Mind if I escort you, sir?"
"Go right ahead." He chuckled to himself.
"Tommy, going for a walk?"
"Huh?" He grinned. "Oh, yeah. Right. See you later."
"What the...?" The private stared at him.
"Guess the country's reely gittin' t' me. I's fallin' in with the tradition, ye know?" Mark smiled knowingly.
The distraction worked...for a while. Unfortunately, the sergeant had a bit more clue than the rest of them.
"What the hell do you think you're doing, private?"
"I thought he might lead me to it, sir."
"Not if he knows you're following him, you idiot! It's a ruse! Get the rest of the men together, and run that sweep!"
He looked at Mark. "You. I want to have a word with you."
"Me?" Mark smiled innocently.
"Arright, where's the creature?"
"Bastard, you shot it already!"
"Don't play games with me, I know there's another one!"
"You gotta be kidding. I ain't...ho--ly sh--it!" Mark stared.
He ducked away, laughing.
She climbed out of the tunnel, looking around. It was too soon. There was something she had to do.
Mark exploded out of the woods, the sergeant right behind him. "Laura, go!"
The sergeant reached around for his rifle, and took aim.
The scyth dashed into the tunnel, just missing the bullet that ricocheted away. The rock face closed.
The sergeant stopped and stared, and a couple of the privates popped out of the woods below. The asteroid rose slowly, hovering for an instant.
I'll always remember you...ember you...r you...
A second later, it was gone, vanishing into the lonely night sky.
"Let's go." The sergeant sighed, walking back down the hill, and Mark was alone again.
Tonight, Laura...no, the scyth had finally returned to her only home. Friendless and alone, she would wander the stars for centuries to come, all because she was the last of her kind.
Perhaps. He held up the pearls, both twinkling in the moonlight.
What does it mean, to be human?
Damon Casale, firstname.lastname@example.org
Scyth copyright 1996 by Anonymous.
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