You can read the Story Behind the Story here along with some advance reader comments. Note: This longish short story is being further developed as a novel.
“There are things known, and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.” —Aldous Huxley
I crouched in the white, sterile room and felt the tremors and shocks of the attacks. If the shields in this section of the compound held, the next automated phase would be the organic components. I looked at the Chrysalis, the sealed tube I’d soon be in. I wondered if afterward—if there were one—the replicated flesh would sense a caress. Or make me feel the way I felt when I gave goodnight kisses to Kari, a warm brush of lips on the forehead as I tucked her in. I remembered what it was like when my skin prickled at my lover, then my husband’s touch. That livewire jump of stimulated flesh responding. What was coming next promised to return that to me. My soul that still lived within the shell prayed it would.
Then I remembered… they were gone. Dead. Everyone I loved had been killed.
~ ~ ~
The internal frame had formed, hardening my human skeletal structure, and the casing layered over it. Casing. That’s what the bio-engineers called the material molded to my human form. It would assimilate my former flesh into pseudo-skin, quasi-flesh, without sensation that would not fully activate until the transformation stage. And that would have to be skipped now and re-sequenced post-launch. With each shudder and shake, chunks fell from the overhead. Self-tunneling bombs penetrated the underground facility’s shell, and each explosion drew nearer to breaching the structure.
I ran my un-feeling fingers through hair as long and black as my own had been. The gene-fab had matched it perfectly. I gathered it to pull away from hanging in my face and awkwardly used a hair tie to keep it held back. There was to be at least one Mech-tech assistant and bio-science doctor at every stage, but they had not made it. I was alone.
Though the sense of touch would not return until activated at the cellular level, I felt pressure as I clumsily detached the umbilicals that had delivered the slurry of mech-organic-nanites into me that formed and replaced human organs. I pulled free the last of them that draped my right shoulder and wrapped around under my left arm into my chest. I slipped my arms into the coverall worn beneath my suit, its looseness soon to be filled with the cocooning material needed for protection and catalyst for rejuvenation. Closing the fasteners, I walked to the Chrysalis.
~ ~ ~
I came awake as the Chrysalis slid into the capsule’s Insertion and Integration Pod (IIP), and it began its short transfer to the launch rails. The rudimentary control panel lighted, and in the center display, the countdown sequence began. I had only two simulator trials but knew there was no manual override to stop it or change the presets in an actual launch. There was little for me to do until I arrived at the destination. The display showed line by line all the launch procedures as they completed and startup system status. The cluster of sensor readouts in the top right-hand corner was in red, showing I would lift under duress—threat levels were at maximum readings.
I didn’t need a display to tell me that. I felt the slam of detonations coming more frequently now. I heard the thud as if a heavy hand slapped the capsule from the outside like someone trying to get my attention. Then it was louder, harder… a staccato banging. Sharp and penetrating, I felt the blunt force of each through my suit and the cocoon coverall. The launch bay, the chute I would take off from, was caving in.
I tilted my head forward. The counter was at 30… 29… 28… systems at 70%… 71%… 72%. There was a crash and groan of the stressed container around me as heavier debris landed on it; above my recumbent position, the overhead buckled.
27… 26… the pod was rocking now. It was going to roll from the rail, or the guide itself become wrecked or obstructed. To the right of the display, out of the way so as not to be triggered accidentally, was an orange button the size of the palm of my formerly human hand. We were told never to push it unless we had no alternative. It would bypass systematic launch and start immediate burn for an emergency takeoff at higher G than full-system standard—power allocation would be almost solely for the engines. Designed to be stiff and difficult to engage, I slammed it down as the counter went to 25, and another explosion and shockwave, larger and louder than any of the others, hit the capsule.
I felt the pressure. The inertial dampers had not loaded; an enormous power drain, they were the last step in a routine launch. In my new form, internally, there were still parts of me firming and resolving mechorganics and biocomputer integration. There’d been no time for the complete cycle, and it would conclude in transit. I felt something shift inside with a lurch as my capsule exited the chute far from the underground bunker complex and climbed sharply from the planet surface. Quickly I shot through the Hive armada orbiting Edinnu but not fast enough as several strafing hits raked the capsule. An alarm sounded as the shield indicator went from green to red. Other sensors reported a seemingly endless stream of shuttles from their ships to the ground. They were infesting my planet, and nothing could stop them.
Course set to the closest portal coordinates, I pulled away from the pursuing scout ships at max acceleration. The capsule shaking around me, I entered the densest, darkest part of the planetary system. The IIP’s systems recognized when we were aligned in the portal and automatically engaged the phase engine. Its twisting of the fabric of space and time was something solely biological organisms could not survive. Even I blacked out. I awoke three days later as the IIP exited through the dark-matter portal, lunar far side, near Earth’s single moon. The short trajectory from there was rough. The shielding of the phase stasis carapace had failed in transit. My capsule was coming apart.
~ ~ ~
Earth – Near the City / 1977
I had landed, and instead of executing its assimilation protocols, the damaged capsule ejected me immediately just before dissolving in its self-destruct sequence. My internal systems had failed early in-flight, and a red offline warning flashed on my visor display. Without my human-interface/SBAI and data retrieval, collection, and update, I had no reference record of the Earth system intelligence reports. That meant I had not received the detailed contextual briefing that should have taken place during transit to Earth. I had not been the primary assigned, didn’t have Asha’s training. And I needed that information to understand more of the current Earth civilization and societal level I faced. All I had was an audio channel.
Stretching, I craned my neck to look up at a strange sky. I closed my eyes and thought of home as I took off my pod suit and helmet. The channel switched to my internals, and a male voice said: “And now we’ve got something special, an entire album without commercial break thanks to our sponsor. It’s the latest from The Alan Parsons Project…” The broadcast coming in was music; beautiful music. I listened to the songs as something spurred me to get to higher ground. The wind, something within teased me with what it should feel like, blew from behind me; I could tell when a gust caught my hair, and it danced in front of my face as I looked up. I climbed steadily and reached the structure on the hill I’d seen nearby before landing as my sensors flickered in and out. It seemed made from the same organic material I had just passed through. I touched the side of it… the building. A dwelling? But it was dead. Lifeless. Or perhaps I couldn’t feel it since my damaged primary systems were failing. Stabilization and motor functions shut down, and I fell forward onto an elevated platform that leads to what appeared to be an access point. I crashed down in front of it. An opening appeared, and there, framed in the light behind them, were two humans, one taller than the other. I tried to talk; the words formed in my head but wouldn’t come out. Everything went dark.
The House / October 31, 1977
The man had expected to check on the noise and find nothing and no one. The bravest to dare step on his porch or knock on the door was never courageous enough to stick around. He looked down at what was clearly a female shape wrapped in a silvery, metallic material. She was unconscious, and all that showed were closed eyes and long black, wind-tangled hair that fell past her shoulders.
“We’ll keep her…” the man was tall, gaunt; past middle-aged and had the tight, drawn face of a zealot.
The woman at his side barely reached his shoulder. She trembled, and coils of her wiry hair vibrated in the stark, single-bulb light that hung from its cord above them. Under that glare, she twitched like only fear held her in place when she wanted to skitter away and hide.
“We shouldn’t…” she started and stopped when his implacable eyes moved to her. She swallowed the bile in her throat. “I’ll take her downstairs to your room.”
* * *
The House / 40 Years Later
The old woman smoothed long, glossy hair away from the woman’s face. Cradling her, she gave two more strokes and set the brush aside. She awkwardly slid from under her, lifting the head from her lap and placing it gently on the pillow. Although she knew the woman would not wake, she had witnessed her semi-conscious and suffering the same cruelty she had.
The years had thickened and stiffened her. She felt the creaking pain in hips and knees as she stepped down and straightened over the figure on the bed. In 1977, when they had found the woman lying before her, she had seemed about her age. It bought back the agony of losing Angela, who had died earlier that same year. Only four years old, and her daughter’s death was his fault. He had killed her, dropping her like that. She’d asked him to not play with her on the third-floor landing. But Angela so loved the hand shadows he’d make in the sunbeams from its tall window that she’d laugh and laugh. And then she fell. Angela’s neck had been broken, and her daughter died in her arms. She had screamed up at him as he came down the stairs. Through her tears, she had seen his face… and became more scared than angry.
He had taken Angela’s body from her and crossed the main floor to go below. To the room, he’d ceased using, stopped hurting her there when their daughter was born. She thought Angela had fixed what was wrong inside him. But when she was gone, she’d seen in his eyes—on his face—things were going back to the way they were before. She had cried for her daughter… and for herself. But something inside her changed with that grief. When he had started on not just her but the unconscious woman they’d found, too—it had taken a few years—but she’d finally fought back.
Taking Angela’s favorite toy with her, she left to sit and watch the night settle over the city and its lights come on. On the porch, she rocked, hand stroking the doll’s hair. “Tired, so tired…” she murmured and then was still.
* * *
The City / October 29, 2020
“Tony… It’s trespassing. What if you… Okay, what if we get caught?” Addison rolled his eyes at Evelyn. “All right, I’ll come with you. But that doesn’t mean yes.” He shook his head. “See you in 15 minutes.” He put his phone in his back pocket and turned to her. “He’s got the perfect—socially distanced—place for our farewell party.” He saw her look harden; the one she got when she felt something would disrupt her to-do list, but continued. “It’s someplace outside town.”
“And?” Evelyn raised an eyebrow. There always was an ‘and’ with Tony. She adjusted her ponytail but needn’t. It remained perfect—not a strand trying to escape—as she kneeled to place dishes in the box at her feet. She was thankful her red locks behaved and weren’t the wildness of her sister’s. She sometimes knew her well-ordered everything in its place personality irritated Addison but knew he loved all of her, including that part.
“And it’s been sitting vacant for nearly three years. Abandoned, so Tony says.” Addison grabbed his keys from the counter. “He wants me to check it out with him.”
“It’s late afternoon.” Evelyn waved a hand at the surrounding boxes. “We need to finish packing. We have to be out Saturday morning. Then we have a day’s drive. You start work on Monday!”
“You could take a break and meet Susan for a drink.”
She shook her head at him. “She’s busy today. I saw her yesterday for our goodbye lunch.” Evelyn didn’t mention it was also to commiserate with her best friend about the doctor’s news on her lab results. Addison didn’t know about them yet.
“Michelle?” he asked.
“She’s working, too. I’ll see her tomorrow.” Evelyn saw him fidget, looking for something or someone he could latch her on to as a reason to not plug away while he was off with Tony. The move, the new job… and the waiting on lab results; it all converged and had him on edge. He needed a little break with someone who was stress-free. And no one was more stress-free than Tony. She sighed and smiled, nodding at him.
That said it all for him. They had been married for just a year, and he still thrilled at the light that flashed in Evelyn’s eyes when she smiled at him. “I’ll be back in a couple of hours, Ev… and we’ll finish up.”
“Right…” She knew anything to do with Tony required multiplying by two. Two times harder to deal with. Two times longer waiting on him. But he and Addison had been best friends since first grade. He was taking their cross-country move hard. “Okay, but let me know if it’s going to be later.” She looked around again. “I don’t want to scramble to get it all done on the last day.”
* * *
“You said it was just outside of town…”
“Well, it is. Just a bit further.” Tony was reading directions he had scribbled on a napkin. “I think.” Twenty minutes later: “I think we’re close.” Leaning forward, face almost against the windshield. “That’s it… Turn left… Now!”
Addison nearly locked the brakes, slowing down and sliding into the turn. “Dammit, Tony. How about some warning!”
The side road quickly turned from asphalt to gravel to dirt and climbed. They cleared the winding tree-lined road, and there it was, sitting on the rise of the hill—the house.
“Around back.” Tony waved a hand, “to the right…” as they slowed approaching the front of the house. The backyard, just beyond a square of ground off the porch, quickly pitched down into a hollow and thick spread of forest that ran for miles. In the distance, they could see the city skyline.
“Wicked view, eh?” Tony grinned. “John said it was something, especially at night.”
“He’s sure it’s abandoned?”
“Yeah. Has been for a while now.” Something in his tone made Addison look at him. Tony had that, ‘watch me now cause what I’m about to say is so cool,’ look. “Guess what else?”
He sighed. “What, Tony?”
“The couple that owned it. The old woman killed the old man over 30 years ago and kept his body. Wicked, huh?” He pointed at the back porch where an old-fashioned rocking chair sat. “A county tax assessor found her dead, sitting there, with a child’s doll in her arms.” He made an exaggerated shudder and shake of his shoulders. “Inside, they found the decomposed body of her husband at the foot of the stairs. He’d been nailed to the floor with his head strapped in place, looking up.”
“And you want to have a party here?”
“Absolutely. You’re leaving the morning after Halloween, and we’re gonna have a party you’ll remember. Even if it’s just me, Tina, you and Evelyn.”
Addison looked around. It was an eerie spot. Two large trees grew at the corners of the house and were set back toward the woods. The gnarled, leafless limbs showed how the wind had shaped them as they had grown. Hunched away from the forest, their broad trunks with bowed backs to the wind. The branches formed sharply nailed fingers that seemed to grip the house. The sun was setting, and he could see the moon would rise over the woods. Cool and very creepy.
“Yeah…” He looked at Tony, who grinned back.
His smile got bigger. “And Tina gets really frisky when she’s scared. Let’s check out the inside!”
Addison shook his head as he pulled his phone out to call Evelyn. He checked his watch. Two hours had already passed, and he was going to be late.
* * *
The City / October 30
Evelyn had been asleep when he returned, so Addison had waited until morning to tell her.
“And you want to spend the night there?” Evelyn gave him the eyebrow. She could say more with it than with any angry look or curse word.
“It’s in the direction we need to go to the interstate. We already planned on using a sleeping bag the last night, anyway.”
She looked doubtful. “I don’t know, Addison. That was sleeping here and not in some old house in the woods.”
“Tony’s brother John is handling the auction. He said there’s no problem. I talked to him myself.” He had to take Tony with a grain of salt; sometimes, his words didn’t match up to reality. “It’ll be fine, Ev… really.”
Evelyn sighed and hand-smoothed Addison’s blond cowlick of hair. “Okay, but I’m not drinking. One of us needs to be clearheaded, and I want to get an early start. You can sleep off your hangover in the passenger seat.”
* * *
The woman took some comfort in the memories that lasted long enough before they turned into pain and regret. They were the only framework of existence she could hold on to.
Forty Years Earlier / 3077 Basic Year (BY) / Dilmun, Edinnu
Kari’s hair was as long and lustrous as mine, but where mine was like nightfall, hers was bright sunshine like her father’s. It shone as I helped her brush it out every evening at bedtime.
“Tell me a story, mama.” She always bounced in her bed when she asked each night. The hair so neatly brushed only minutes ago now swung and swayed over her face.
“How about the one where the young princess awakens to her true love?”
“No… Not that one!” Kari’s frown was forming.
“How about the story of the girl that met a hideous beast who fell in love with her and transformed into a handsome prince?”
When Kari crossed her arms and gave me that look, I knew I might as well get to it. Her favorite story: “There once was a girl born to her parent’s surprise. It happened after a visitor changed their lives forever, and so their unexpected daughter was a blessing. And though she was a girl, she became a fierce fighter. She stood up to those who had taken her land and hurt the people who lived there—she drove them from her country. But she didn’t start out that way. For six years, she lived, played, and learned as all children do. But on her seventh birthday, her mother and father told her where she came from and what she could become. But it was her choice; there were many paths she could follow…”
I saw the smile come to Kari’s face as she snuggled into her blanket and pillow. She’d be asleep before I got to the ending. But then, she knew it all by heart.
~ ~ ~
The House / October 31
“That’s all the music?”
“No, it’s the theme.” Tony had the album in his hand. “It’s an Alan Parsons Project party!” He flipped the LP’s cover in his hands; it showed a robot riding an escalator in a futuristic setting. “I Robot, it’s one of your favorites, from your dad’s collection.”
“I told you Ev, and I are not wearing a costume, Tony. The party’s a good idea, but let’s not go overboard.” Addison shook his head.
“You get teacher jobs, and now you’re respectable. You guys are growing old too fast.”
“It’s not that; it’s just too much. Ev’s tired, we’ve already had one farewell party with everyone else, and we’re leaving early tomorrow morning.”
“Well, this is a private party, a special Halloween, and I’m doing it up right. I’m gonna be Gort, and Tina’s gonna be Maria!” Tony gave him that look. Wait for it. “Come on, man… You know Maria.” He made a pointy cup, young-Madonna bra, motion with his hands in front of his chest. “From Fritz Lang’s Metropolis!”
Addison smiled. A love of classic science fiction and their father’s 70s music had helped form their friendship/ “Got it.” And gave him a thumbs up on that one. Though he was wrong about the pointy-cups, Maria’s were rounded.
“I got my stuff here.” He glanced at his watch. “Gotta hurry and change; Tina will be here in an hour.”
* * *
Tony hadn’t cranked the music yet, so Addison heard the knock on the door. He opened it. Tina stepped inside and struck a pose in the waning light from outside and the lanterns and candles they’d just lighted in the main entry.
Tina looked more like a Princess Leia—Jabba the Hutt—slave girl with metal bikini and gold body paint than Maria from Metropolis. But she was smoking hot. Tony’s girlfriends, there had been many, were cut from the same full cloth. Addison preferred ballerinas, like Evelyn, to buxom Roller Derby Queens, but Tina was a beautiful girl. And intelligent. Maybe too much so for Tony. But they’d been happily together for six months, which was a record for him.
“Happy Halloween!” She stepped in and hugged him. A bit awkwardly at her clench and boob-smash, he pulled back. She looked at his chest and said, “Oh….”
Addison looked down and saw two smudged gold half-moon crescents on his white t-shirt. Her breasts had lost some of their sheen along the arc of their top, where they pushed up and out.
“Sorry.” She had a half-sheepish grin.
He heard a clanking behind him and turned. Tony had a metallic silver jumpsuit on with boots he’d somehow wrapped with metal bands. On his head was a silver cloth ski mask, and a visor covered his eyes.
“You look more like the lost love child of an affair between Geordi in Star Trek NG and Robocop than Gort.” Addison snorted.
“Smartass.” His phone was in his hand, and he pressed a button. The swirling sounds to the opening of I Robot echoed, increasing in volume. “Let’s start this little party.” He took Tina by the arm. “I’ll give you a tour.”
* * *
Everything remained dark, but something cut through the silence. The memory of a song raised her awareness, and something stirred inside, spiking for just a moment, nearly bringing her to consciousness. It faded, and she sank back to a dream of far away:
“I hate when you have duty like this.” Aron paced as he always did when he was upset. “There’s another alert on. We should stay together.” As I readied to leave for my station a thousand feet below in the Pardes Lab bunker complex, he looked at me. “Iris… we should be together if something happens.”
“Statistically, the odds are no greater than they have been for the past year.” Even as I said it, I felt that sense of living on borrowed time. I looked up at him; I was tall, but he was taller, and then down to our daughter. I had to pull Kari’s arms from around my waist so I could kneel to kiss her. “It’s only for three days at a time.” I brushed long, blond strands of hair from Kari’s face and kissed her forehead. Her cheeks were wet with tears, and before I could say anything to comfort her…
“I know, mama… it’s what you have to do.”
~ ~ ~
The House / October 31
“Hot dogs and cold beer.” Addison hugged Evelyn closer. The sun was down, and the moon coming up. A chill wind blew through the forest, pushing the tops of the trees toward them. Across the fire, he saw glints of gold and silver from Tony and Tina, though they each now wore full-length overcoats against the crisp fall air.
Loud music came from the house. Tony wanted to hear it from outside. He saw Addison and grinned back. “You gonna miss our little get-togethers. Aren’t you? When you’re out there in Farmersville, America.”
Addison was starting a new life with Evelyn 1,000 miles away, but there were things he’d miss from the old. He raised his bottle of Stella Artois. “Yeah,” he winked at Tina then looked at Tony. “But, I’m sure Tina will keep in touch.”
Tony put his arm around her. “Why would she want you when she has me?”
Evelyn was naturally reticent. Not shy, just quiet… she could be outspoken and assertive if she chose to be. As her arm circled Addison’s waist, she piped up. “You know what they say, Tony?”
He came around the fire, Tina with him, to face the moon rising over the trees. “What’s that, Evie?” He teased, knowing she’d make him pay for calling her that.
“Deeds not words, Tony. Loud talk,” she looked him up and down, “means little action.” She turned, looking up as her arms pulled Addison in a tight embrace. “My man has plenty…” she looked back at Tony, “of action.”
Addison didn’t know what to say. She never got one in on Tony like that. Being a history major and teacher—albeit teaching remotely for Oakmont Middle School—he knew what she had nailed Tony with. “That’s what’s known as a Parthian shot, my friend.” Over her shoulder, he saw Tony’s eyes widen and blink, not understanding. So he helped his friend: “A parting shot.”
“Evelyn, you’re like the big sister I never had and never wanted to keep me straight,” he squeezed Tina, and she lightly slapped him. He let go of Tina and looked up at the sky behind them. “Hey, science teacher lady, what are those?”
Addison turned with Evelyn still in his arms. A dozen or more lights were streaking across the sky—golden streams—a flight of shooting stars, only thicker and closer. One of them separated from the cluster and angled down in their direction. They followed as it arced overhead. The fog had thickened in the forest before them and shrouded its center. The streak of light seemed to strike there, but there was no sound of impact. The mist swallowed it.
“I don’t know.” Evelyn twisted to look higher in the sky, but it was clear now, just a few wisps of clouds catching moonbeams overhead. She was an astronomy buff. Her prized possession was packed carefully in the U-Haul, a Sky-Watcher Pro 120 ED APO Refractor, and a Celestron CGEM EQ Mount. She had worked an extra job last summer to buy them. “I don’t know…” she said again.
“Now, that’s something I rarely hear.” Her eyes came back to Addison’s. “Ev’s the smartest person I know. She tells me that all the time… like I’d forget it.” Evelyn laughed, but he knew it would puzzle her the rest of the night. He felt her shiver. “It’s too cold out here. I’ll douse the fire. You guys go in and prime that Coleman heater.”
Evelyn followed Tony and Tina, but her eyes never left the sky until she stepped onto the porch. Addison took a folding shovel, snapped it open, and dug into the ground. He pitched four or five spadesful on to the fire. Stepping into the scalloped-out area, Tony had built a fire in; Addison stomped the dirt down, then stepped out and tossed three more shovelfuls onto it. He checked, and it was out. Collapsing the camping shovel, he gave the sky a last look. His eyes dropped to the spread of forest before the city beyond. Under the mist, at the center of the woods, he saw a glow. It moved. Stopped. Moved again toward him… the house. Then it went out. Someone with a light walking through the woods… but why there, he wondered. The music lowered in the house, and he heard the wind pick up coming through the trees below. He felt the sting of colder air on his cheeks, turned from it, and went inside.
* * *
“Maybe you’ve had too much to drink to play hide and seek.” Evelyn had laughed at Tony.
His eyes had lit up when Tina had told him, fourteen minutes ago, “Give me fifteen minutes, and if you find me—you can have me.” She smiled at Evelyn and Addison. “Later, when our guests are asleep.” Her hips gleamed and swung like a polished cast bronze bell as she left the room.
Tony downed a shot of Patrón; the tequila burn made him smack his lips as he rose from the floor. He swayed toward the hallway leading deeper into the house and sang with the music: “Before you run and hide… He’s gonna get you.”
* * *
Tony hadn’t found her in any of the ground-floor rooms. And he hadn’t heard her going up the creaky stairs. Besides, Tina always scoffed at how dumb they made most girls in slasher movies—always running upstairs to be cornered. She’d go down, and the thought made him grin.
They’d seen there were two ways into the basement: stairs that descended from the kitchen and a narrower set from what looked like had been a library or study off the main hallway. And there was a third way from outside. As you faced the front of the house, toward the back on the right side, were a set of doors at a 45° angle for a coal chute down to the furnace room part of the basement. Ruts in the yard that ran from the driveway toward them confirmed years of passage by a heavy delivery truck.
In the basement, Tony realized the music had stopped. He was too far away for a Bluetooth connection to the speakers. “Need some tunes.” He popped his earbuds in and plugged into his phone. That switched the sound over. It was dark. His flashlight cast a weak light; he shook it, and it didn’t strengthen. He stumbled and almost fell, grabbing what he thought was a hook for a coat or hat that protruded from the wall next to him. His weight pulled it down. Even over the music, he heard the rasp of metal and a loud thunk, or maybe because he was right on top of it—he felt it through his feet. A large section of the floor dropped away. Inching closer, he shined his light into the opening and saw steps. He went down them. They ended and opened into a large room.
His light showed on the back wall, and against it, on a wooden frame, was a mattress covered in satin sheets and a gauze curtain, dusty and aged, shrouded it. A small two-step stool sat next to the bed. He walked over and pulled back the thin veil. Tony looked down at a woman. She wore an ankle-length, gossamer nightgown and was stunning. Brushed smooth, long black hair draped over her shoulders like a shawl running down the sides of her breasts.
“Hey… lady.” She didn’t move. “Hello?” He poked her shoulder. She still didn’t respond. He shook the shoulder. “Lady!” Not a twitch. He pulled his phone out to take a picture, fumbled with it, and his hand caught the cord of his earbuds; they unplugged. Fumbling, his fingers pressed play, and the song boomed in the room. “… gonna get you!” Her eyes opened and glittered like backlit rubies; her head turned to stare at him. “Holy shit!”
The woman’s hand flashed to his throat and cut off his yell. She sat up, lifted him one-handed, and threw him against the far wall bringing down the casket that had been on a large ledge he hadn’t noticed. Panicked and unbelieving, he looked inside and saw what must be a child’s skeleton. Dried, desiccated flesh showed under what had been a delicate silk nightgown for a little girl. Arranged around the skull were swaths of long, dried straw, brown hair; some still attached to the bone.
“What the hell?” He glanced behind him. The woman was still sitting up but not moving. A red light flickered from her eyes. He turned and stumbled. He had to find Tina and get back to Addison and Evelyn to tell them about the room he found and the woman. Falling over something, he rose from his knees. “Shit… Shit!” A rustle and creak made him look back. The woman had swung her legs off the mattress and cocked her head toward him as her feet touched the floor. She was tall and grim; no expression on her face. Her eyes locked on him. This time he got it out, and the shout echoed even louder than the music. He raced to the steps and up them.
In the dark basement, turned around and confused, he tried to remember where the stairs were. He paused, trying to orient himself. Breathing heavily, he heard, felt something near him, and spun. It touched his arm, and he screamed again.
“Tony! What is wrong with you?” A flashlight flicked on. It was Tina.
“Down there…” he gestured but had no idea if it was in the right direction. “A woman and a kid’s body… a skeleton.”
“Come on, Tony, don’t play games. Ha Ha… hilarious.” The light from her flashlight held waist-high, still reached her eyes. They grew big as she looked beyond him. He wheeled around. Something human-shaped had come out of the darkness. Eyes that pulsed scanned them. An arm reached into the light toward them. Its hand transformed from fingers into blades and, with a sideways slash, cut Tony’s head from his shoulders. A spray of blood flew, and the light from the thing throbbed brighter and caught Tina’s blood-streaked face in a strobe light moment as she screamed. Another sweep of its arm ended the cry. The two parts of her body fell in opposite directions.
The eyes glowed as it came forward. A razor’s gleam flashed when it stooped and reached for the pieces and lifted them to its mouth.
* * *
“Did you hear something?” Addison and Evelyn had snuggled together on their sleeping bag beside the heater. They didn’t mind that the music had stopped. The quiet was pleasant, and they were tired.
Evelyn had been debating if the time to tell him what the doctor said was now. His question gave her the distraction—and delay—she needed. “What’s that?”
“I thought I heard a scream.” Addison stood, and she pulled him back down.
“Tony must be trying to scare Tina, or she’s trying to scare him.” She smiled, and he laughed, relaxing against her. She let the thought of what she almost told him drift away. Later in their new home, in a day or two, she’d tell him. It would be hard; he wanted children, but they’d come to grips with that. They had each other, and that was what was important. The hiss of the heater was hypnotic. She was nearly asleep when she felt him stiffen.
“That was a scream. Tina’s!” She sat up as he scrambled to his feet.
* * *
The music had triggered an alert response. My vision glowed, red-framed, in my mind: Threat—Threat—Threat. Neutralize. Auto defense had kicked in, and then another song reached me, something from the past. I’d been unable to communicate, and the words made me stop. “When I break down in the middle and lose my thread… No one can understand the words that I say.” I remembered I’d been damaged, still was, and realized that the SSR, my system self-repair program, had not initialized.
Holding onto consciousness, I command-line launched it. I knew the thing that had alerted me had seemed metallic with a sensor-visor of some type. Whatever it was, I had thrown from me was gone. My sensors were coming online like a bank of lights set in concentric circles radiating from the center outward. There was an egress point ten feet from me. Then vertical, up eight feet, to an area, I couldn’t read in detail yet. The scan registered life forms above, whether sentient human or nonhuman, was undetermined. I moved toward them as my vision tinted red. Threat—Threat—Threat.
* * *
I kneeled over them—humans—their dead bodies in fragments now. Still unfeeling, the SSR reached another recovery point. My vision framed in blue as data poured in. It was confusing in its volume and content, unlike what I’d experienced on landing so long ago before my system shutdown. What is this… this Internet? And why did it have so many raw and disturbing things? It was like a gut punch. Without my full system online, I wasn’t sure what that meant, but it came from somewhere deep inside my consciousness. Something told me to take a breath. Why? I did not need oxygen.
Despite what I saw, heard, and read in the stream and flow of data, that made me question what had happened to humanity. There was good, too. I wondered how it continued to exist amid all the other, disconcerting, data. I reached and picked up a device emanating low-level power and held it in my hands. Alert—Alert—there was movement at a point ahead of me and just above. I straightened as bright light speared the dark and covered me.
* * *
Evelyn screamed; Addison was too scared to. The woman in the light was on her knees in a crimson puddle that darkened at the edges where the light faded. At the sound, she stood. At her feet were what must be Tony and Tina’s bodies, what was left of them. Blood dripped from the knees of the woman’s gown and lower legs and the palms of her hands. She raised them, turning upwards to look at her fingers. The woman’s gaze moved to them.
“Addison!” No panic, but urgency was in Evelyn’s voice now. She gripped him by the shoulder as he turned around and pushed her back up the stairs. Glancing down, he saw the woman’s eyes shift from blue to red. He scrambled up, hearing the woman—the thing below—follow them.
* * *
I had a vague memory of two humans, a tall male, and a shorter female, carrying me through the hallway back the way I had just come to where I’d been below. I couldn’t determine a time reference. Focus on now… on here, something directed me. I touched a button on the device I held, and more music came from it. It echoed. “I don’t care what you do; I wouldn’t want to be like you…”
The song was one of my last memories shortly after landing. It mixed with and seemed a commentary on what I’d seen as the social interaction in the stream of online data I was still analyzing. The shallow, the cruel, the bragging, posturing, the insecure, and bullying. It was not the profile I’d expected of humanity and the leader of the nation I had landed in. I needed time to sort it all out and decide. The words of the song came to me again, and I remembered I had once sung. What was that? There was no logic to the conscious memory. Why would I sing? To who? My auditory control muted the music, canceling it out against other background noise, as I picked up sounds from ahead.
* * *
“Shit… No, cell signal.” Addison cried, fumbling with his phone. “Check yours.”
Evelyn already had hers out and shook her head. A sizzle filled the room like a spike of distortion from a microphone then his phone shut down. He pressed the power-on button so hard he felt something snap inside. “Dammit.”
A blur raced from the hallway. “Ev!” Addison screamed as the blood-soaked woman grabbed her by the arm. As Evelyn struggled, she held a crimson-smeared hand up palm out toward him. He moved toward her. “Let her go.”
“Stop!” The woman’s head cocked and panned the room.
Addison watch as her eyes changed from red to blue as they seemed to sense something beyond the walls. Her voice was clearly female but with a metallic ring to it.
“Registering Human—Registering Friendly.” Her data feed separated names to associate with the humans. “Warning—Warning.” Her head panned back and forth as she turned, dragging Evelyn with her. Eyes looking outward, then with a head-jerk snap, she looked down. “Threat—Threat—Threat.”
The floor in front of them exploded upward, showering them with debris and splinters. The woman spun Evelyn behind her to face the thing crawling from the basement: “Protect and Defend—Protect and Defend,” her eyes now glowed green. All of her systems came online. In that pause, the Mansect moved faster, screaming “Human…” in its foul, screeching language as it shot over her slashing down at the girl behind. It caught Evelyn deep, the rip continuing across her chest. As she fell backward, it rode her down. The woman grabbed the Mansect, pulling at its chitinous finger-blades. They made a wet, sucking sound as they slid from Evelyn’s chest. She saw the human man jump the creature, making it turn from them. How foolish, how brave, she thought as she moved the woman… Evelyn into the corner behind her. That offered her some protection from the sides as she turned to face it.
In a cartwheel of arms and legs, the man spun to the side to crash into a wall. She saw a long gash in his back trail, a splash of blood that splattered and smeared where he landed.
The creature’s screech resolved into the Common Language: “You’re the last of the Augurs. All others are dead as you’ll soon be.” Mouthing the words, its fangs dripped as it smiled. “And this world—the last of your seed colonies—will fall.” Its head turned but kept the left eye on her as it looked at the man with the other. “They will feed us. This will be your true death. No resurrection, Augur. I watched you in the dark, below, to see if you’d connected with the female—if you regretted her death. There was nothing, but now I sense you have with this one. After I kill you, I’ll eat the seed-bearer you’ve chosen.” It extended one of its talon-like blades toward Evelyn on the floor behind her. “None of your kind—none of the Edinnu—will propagate.”
There was only one way to kill it. One sure way. But the cost… and what of her primary mission? She had not gone through the selection process. She had not explored this world to find the one. Her duty was to escape; to warn humanity. But more importantly, to find and test to determine the correct birth-surrogate female to carry on. Yet, the young human female behind her reminded her of someone, her bearing, and locks of long bright hair. Someone she loved. Who? The SSR completed synchronizing with her SBAI… the soul inside that made her more than a machine, more than artificial intelligence. Full memories lanced through her, a live wire touching nerves just now reborn. She could feel, and she remembered! And the pain flooded her.
Her voice became human: “I am Iris Jondarc.” She realized who she’d been, what she’d lost, and what she was now. She faced the creature, seeing behind him that the man had risen and was listening. “You may kill me… But you will not survive. You’ll not harm her further.” She knew what she must do.
With a shriek of hatred and hunger, the creature charged her.
* * *
“Mostly, you are what they think you are.” —Neil Gaiman, American Gods
The Mansect had ruptured her power core. But allowing that and then triggering a single-burst discharge was the only way to kill it. She’d fried the damn thing. Iris slumped next to Evelyn, who was still unconscious, and stroked her hair. Smoothing it as she’d once done for her sleeping daughter.
“What are you?”
Iris opened her eyes. It was the man, now at Evelyn’s side. She shook her head slowly; emergency power would last for only a few minutes more. “I am… I was a scientist-soldier.” His puzzled look made it clear. “Man, humanity on this planet has forgotten much.” A luminescent gel oozed from the gaping holes in her chest. She touched it and brought the glowing fingertips closer to her eyes. It was beautiful; the substance that gave her a semblance of human life. The stuff dreams are made of. “We have existed in the cosmos for over 100,000 years. My planet was the beginning—the start of it all. We have…” she looked at the Mansect, knowing it had not lied, “had colonies throughout the universe. Started and left on their own, only to be contacted if necessary. They… the Mansects are a predator species. Cancerous, they spread from star to star. They destroyed my home system.” Her voice trailed off. She slipped back into the dark and the past. “They…”
Had cleared the three security stages and reached the compound’s lowest level to find it on full alert. The rest of the team that came down with me ran to their duty stations. I saw my mentor and colleague.
“Asha, what’s happened?”
“They’re landing in force and launching attacks on every major city.” Her face was pale, but she was under control. “Iris, we’ve lost communications with everyone.”
I spun to head back to the lift tubes. Asha grabbed me. “There’s nothing you can do. Everything above us is gone!” her voice cracked.
“I have to get to Kari and Aron…”
“You can’t, Iris… you can’t. We have to execute the Augur Protocol. I need you to prep me.” She dragged me toward the Insertion and Integration Center. I don’t know how she did it. Her family was up there, too.
The explosion rocked both of us. As the walls and ceiling came down, a sheet of flame roiled through the passageway over us, and then there was darkness.
I woke to the smell of burned flesh. Mine.
~ ~ ~
The House / October 31
“Killed my family and my best friend. We… I had a responsibility—a duty to meet. Asha, my friend, was assigned Earth. When she was killed, I took her place as an Augur. The emissary to warn you that the Mansect Hive would head here next—and how to defend yourselves.” Her head dropped. She remembered the old man, the old woman, and vague, dark memories. A purgatory of years in silence. “I am… was a herald delayed in my purpose.”
Iris touched her chest; the flow had slowed. She had little left. Her fingers moved to the Master Control buttons housed under her left armpit. Pressing them in command sequence opened the armored compartment, a vault, in her left thigh. “This will save her.” Arm slumping, energy level dangerously low, she motioned toward Evelyn and tried to hand the biotech injector to Addison.
He wouldn’t take it. “What… no!” Addison shook his head. “I’m not going to give that to her. How do I kno—”
“She’ll die without it, and my mission will fail completely.” The emerald light in Iris’s eyes flickered. She surged forward and jabbed the injector into Evelyn’s stomach.
“No!” Addison screamed.
Iris held him at arm’s length so the injection would empty. It would still be months before the most significant, positive signs of its results were manifested. “You must take her and go. This… what I just gave her.” Iris put the empty injector cartridge and its embedded data chip in his hand. “Will heal her quickly. Keep that; don’t lose it—it’ll be needed to answer questions you have not even thought of yet. Get her out of here. I must destroy everything.” Iris motioned at the thing that had attacked them and killed Tony and Tina. “I pray there’s still time. Go now!”
Addison got his arms under Evelyn and lifted. He was almost at the door when she moved. “Addison?” she touched his cheek.
“It’s okay, honey… you’ll be fine.” He looked over his shoulder at Iris and nodded. “Thank you.” She smiled back at him. It was the saddest smile he had ever seen.
“Tell her who I was.” Iris closed her eyes, and for a second, she saw Kari and Aron, then opened them again. “Tell her I was human. That’s…” her eyes darkened as the memories ran out. “That’s all I am.” Iris closed her eyes for the last time and heard a song, the one she’d liked most that day so many years ago. She sang into the darkness. “In a matter of a moment lost till the ends of time… some other place, somewhere, some other time.”
* * *
Addison stopped where the paved road began when he saw Evelyn’s cell phone had a signal again. He dialed 911, and a minute later, behind him, a mushroom of fire erupted. The shockwave blew his SUV onto its side and tore loose the U-Haul, and it tumbled away.
* * *
Near The City / November 1 – morning
“Whatever detonated… it sure scoured this hill with a wire brush. Not much left.”
The evidence tech next to her held something in his hands. “Found this.” It looked like a fragment of a skull. It had an eyeball fixed in the remaining socket.
“It’s not organic… it feels like some kind of plastic-metal composite.” He put it in an evidence bag. “Maybe some sort of Halloween costume.” The eye caught the sunlight and flashed an emerald’s glow for a second before it passed into shadow when he set it inside the van.
* * *
The City / November 1 – evening
A reporter stood under a night sky full of falling stars on a high point just above the city. “No one can explain this, but again, tonight, we’ve seen what appears to be a meteor shower, one unknown and unexpected by astronomers. The sky is full of shooting stars—hundreds of them over North America alone. Dozens have been seen over the city and are falling to Earth. But not with an impact; they’re controlled landings. This follows the same pattern witnessed globally following sunset across Europe.”
The reporter looked off-screen and then down at the tablet in her hand. “We’re being told by the networks that affiliates and partners in Tokyo, Beijing, and Hong Kong are silent; off the air and offline. Moscow is broadcasting some sort of defense alert; the same is being done by Athens, Rome, Berlin, Paris, and Madrid. Most of metropolitan London is on fire.”
She stopped, pulled her facemask aside, and looked off-camera. “Is this right? London’s burning?” With a scared look, she turned back to the camera. “They’re broadcasting a general distress signal. I’m told the president will address the nation in five minutes on what is a global emergency.”
The reporter looked up, eyes growing large, and stuttered: “Something just appeared above us and is descending.” She backed up with the camera following her. “It’s landed and something… some things have come out of an opening in the base. They’re…. they’re–” The camera jumped then dropped to the ground as the view from the lens smeared red. The screen went blank.
* * *
A farmhouse 1,000 miles from the City / nine months later
“She’s beautiful. Look at her eyes. Have you ever seen such a beautiful jade color? And where’d that dark hair come from?” Even as he said it, he worried their daughter had been born into a world without a future. Mankind had been routed. What could he hope her to have as she grew up? What legacy?
Exhausted, Evelyn closed her own eyes, and the name came to her. “We’ll call her Karen.” She opened them again and smiled for Addison, who held their newborn daughter. So, handsome despite the worn, drawn, look on his face. She knew what thoughts had passed through him as he looked down for the first time on their child. They had talked of them countless times in all the dark nights since she realized she was pregnant. She had the same concerns. But a growing feeling inside that had not ended with Karen’s birth made her believe in the future. She took his hand and held it to her cheek. Despite its roughness because of the endless manual labor, he was still getting used to… it felt soft and warm. “I have something… a lot to tell you.” She lowered and held it in her lap, looked up, and smiled at him. “Our daughter is extraordinary. And… we have a lot of stories to tell her.”
# # #