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Degeneracy Pressure

DecoFox Nov 19th, 2017 (edited) 960 Never
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  1. Degeneracy Pressure
  2.  
  3. >Chapter 1, Midnight in Sandusky
  4.  
  5. >You don’t care for coffee, which is unfortunate, because the energy drinks probably aren’t doing your health any favors.
  6. >They generally don’t send you to space unless you’re pretty goddamn healthy.
  7. >You down the rest of the slender can anyway, then crush it against the table and toss it. The ball twinkles like gold foil as it sails, sparkling in the amber glow of a single light that dangles from a wooden beam just low enough to hit your head on.
  8. >The former strikes the latter with a satisfying tap and drops like a dead bug into the can below. The light, now swinging in lazy circles, flashes the basement with a macabre ballet of disjointed shadows. You can’t help being a little proud of yourself.
  9. >“Nice shot.”
  10. >Kim, who had been born in Seoul but emigrated before he could remember it, still has every ounce of the accent one would expect. He’s also a god at rhythm games, a resourceful mathematician, and would be a perfect model of the stereotype if he’d been born a bit more conscientious.
  11. >But you’d met him in detention on the third week of your Freshman year of High School. Kim had been late every single day of those three weeks, and then was late to detention too.
  12. >You had been there because you’d fought with the principal when he accused you of lying about the liquor found in your locker being for the rocket project in your physics class. Your parents had cleared it up, but not before you called him an asshole.
  13. >In retrospect you should probably have made a water rocket like everybody else, or at least used kerosene, but you’d wanted to make a good impression.
  14. >Kim had sat down beside you because of the SETI logo on your shirt. He’d wanted to talk about Roswell and Levelland; you had never been the conspiracy type, and had hoped to talk astronomy.
  15. >By the second hour you had found himself admitting that flying saucers probably were aerodynamically sound, and by time the four hour period ended your differences seemed all but reconciled. You’d walked home together, and it turned out the two of you lived just a mile apart. Easy biking distance.
  16. >You had a few acres of property under dark skies, and parents who would overlook moderate explosions and small fires if it meant their son finally had a friend.
  17. >Kim had a badass telescope, a Commodore 64, and a pretty generous allowance.
  18. >That had been four years ago.
  19.  
  20. >“So, you hear from that girl yet?”
  21. >You sigh and spin your chair a quarter turn to face him, flipping the right ear cuff of your headset aside and pinning the left with your off hand.
  22. >“She’ll be here.”
  23. >You’re not sure you actually believe that. Kim snorts disapprovingly. Evidently he doesn’t either.
  24. >“Come on man, you know there’s no girls on radio. It’s all just old guys and greasy nerds like us.”
  25. >He leans back in his chair and flips a Hot Pocket into his mouth to drive the point home.
  26. >Yeah, he’s probably right. But you’d spent your life thinking that kind of thing, and where had it gotten you? A basement with a big-ass HAM radio, an SNES, and an Amiga when Kim brought it around.
  27. >Okay, maybe you hadn’t done so bad for yourself after all, but your imagination, while pretty good, only gets you so far. Playboy helps, but certainly the real thing is better, right?
  28. >You’re legitimately not sure.
  29. >Definitely kind of lonely though, and you’re about through with that.    
  30. >You crack your knuckles and turn back to your radio equipment, double checking the frequency and opening up the filter a little.
  31. >You clear your throat and prepare your best radio voice, which sounds as much like Gene Kranz as you can manage without aging a few decades and chain smoking a shitload of cigarettes.
  32. >You think it’s pretty good, but Kim gives you shit for it.
  33.  
  34. >“QST, this is S5KSC, QSX 7000 to 7300 kHz.”
  35. >You’ve had your license for a few years, and you’re pretty used to the terminology now. You’d called out into the static, and told anyone who might be listening that you were monitoring the frequency band between 7.0 and 7.3 megahertz.
  36. >S5KSC was your callsign. Your first vanity callsign. It stood for “Saturn V, Kennedy Space Center.” You were pretty proud of that.
  37. >But static. Nothing replies save a few interference squeals.
  38. >You let a minute go by, tapping the rhythm of Toto’s “Africa” into your desk with an index finger.
  39. >“QST, this is S5KSC, QSX 7000 to 7300 kHz. Is anyone out there?”
  40. >Fucking nothing.
  41. >You flip an ear cuff off again and kick your chair back around face to Kim, who shakes his head in half-mocked pity and turns his own radio back up.
  42.  
  43.     ...John only became interested in the subject himself seven years ago, after talking with an airforce pilot who was stationed at Bentwaters Air Force Base near London, England, where three small aliens were photographed by the Air Force --actually photographed by the Air Force-- walking up to Wing Commander General Gordon Williams. Lear’s extensive worldwide civilian, military, and intelligence contacts have made it easier for him to penetrate the secrecy surrounding the subject of UFO’s. Then, in 1988 John became acquainted with a government scientist who worked at area S-4, part of the super secret Area 51...
  44.  
  45. >The signal fades out and into a protracted squeal that howls over static and broken sentences. Kim curses under his breath, and rubs at an eye with the back of his right hand while his left fiddles with dials. You mimic his earlier bullshit head shake.
  46. >“No Art tonight, huh? Reckon it’s the aliens interfering? I’d be pissed if I were them.”
  47. >Kim had listened to Art Bell obsessively ever since he came on the air. It didn’t help you lived most of the country away from Coast to Coast Radio’s station, and he’d always ask to use your equipment.
  48. >“It’s too fucking cloudy,” Kim mutters, not bothering to hide the disappointment in his voice, “Fuck, they were going to talk about Area 51 too. And from John Lear too. You heard ‘em, he’s a defense guy or something. Knows what he’s talking about. There could be crazy shit going on there; they might actually blow it wide open. Could you imagine?”
  49. >You  pretend you don’t like the idea as much as you kind of do.
  50. >“It’s nothing, man. It’s always nothing. When we finally make contact with someone, it’ll be a radio array that does it. If we were already workin’ with ‘em, the Wall would have come down ages ago.”
  51. >“Maybe Russia was part of it. Without the USSR we might finally get some real information, now that they don’t have anyone to hide it from. Hell, that could be tonight. I could miss it. Fucking weather.”
  52. >“It’s winter at night. You can’t listen out 1200 miles when there’s a little weather?”
  53. >Kim hauls himself up onto a couch under an open window and fiddles with the antenna he’d routed through it. An icy draft falls in and washes across across the floor, carrying a few snowflakes in its wake.
  54. >He shuts the door again, being particularly delicate with the wires he fed through the snow seal.
  55. >“Not with this piece of shit.”
  56. >He looks your radio stack up and down like a Playboy centerfold. You squint disapprovingly.
  57. >“Yeah, well maybe you shouldn’t have spent all your money on that big-ass computer. You don’t even do video production.”
  58. >“Amiga 3000,” Kim corrects, “you drooled over it as much as I did, remember?”
  59. >“Yeah, then I bought an SNES for a tenth the price. And a car.”
  60. >Your left ear cup crackles suddenly. You whirl back to the controls.
  61. >“Hold up, I might have something.”
  62. >Kim groans.
  63. >“Don’t buy John Lear telling you about the shit that goes on at Area 51, but you think you’re going to get laid over that thing.”
  64. >Laid? You hadn’t even thought that far yet.
  65. >“I ‘dunno, man. Shut up. I’ve got to listen.”
  66. >You shift the other ear cup back on and wait. Nothing but hiss and quiet squeals.
  67. >“QST, this is S5KSC, QSX 7000 to 7300 kHz. G7XRI, you out there?”
  68. >Your Gene Kranz voice gets a little transparent toward the end. You clear your throat again. Static.
  69. >“Someone was fucking with you. Like that blonde chick who said she wanted to date me sophomore year. Remember her?”
  70. >You did, and would have been lying to claim you hadn’t been thinking the same. You elect to do that anyway.
  71. >“She’s not like that. You’ll see.”
  72. >“Dude, you barely talked to her. Said you couldn’t keep the signal, remember? Only got a few words across about when you were going to try to meet again? You didn’t even have a good reason for getting that far. I’m telling you, someone’s fucking with you.”
  73. >Kim props his feet up on the desk and toys with his radio dial some more. Art Bell’s voice leaks through the static again.
  74.  
  75. ...toward Las Vegas, I have now seen three different times, what I--, I’m not sure what it was, John. It looked on the one hand a little bit like a falling star. Been seeing falling stars all night. And this was not, uh, typical of a falling star. It was more like... --I’d have described as a green fireball, trailing fire behind it. In a trajectory, uh, across the sky. It wasn’t small. It wasn’t like a typical falling star that we’ve all seen for years, it was-- And I’ll tell you why I’m mentioning this, John....
  76.  
  77. >Your headphones murmur, and you whirl again and speak with slow deliberation.
  78. >“QST, this is S5KSC QSX 7000 to 7300 kHz. Is anyone out there? Have you any news of G7XRI?” MSG to QSP G7XRI.”
  79. >Maybe you can at least get someone to relay a message for you.
  80. >Static. Then a squeal, a pop, and a chirp of electrical waver. Your heart skips a beat or two.
  81. >“This is, uh, G7XRI. QRZ? QRU? ”
  82. >Who are you? Do you have something for me?
  83. >A man’s voice. Gruff, at that; maybe annoyed. You can’t help flinching.
  84. >This can’t be right. Maybe it hadn’t been quite like you said it had, but you had talked to her. A girl. At least you’d heard her voice.
  85. >“S5KSC. Last QSO 12/2, 0200 hours.”
  86. >We last conversed on December second at 2 in the morning.
  87. >“S5KSC, you have the wrong station.”
  88. >The transmission pops back into static. Kim chuckles, still trying to clean his signal up a little more.
  89. >“I told you. Maybe you dreamed it.”
  90. >He tosses up another hot pocket and catches it like a dolphin.
  91. >You hadn’t fucking dreamed it. It had been 2:00 AM on the second of December. You’d been drinking a Mountain Dew. You tell him as much.
  92. >In his defense, you had less than you were letting on. You hadn’t actually spoken with anyone. Talked, yes, but not spoken. You’d heard her voice, but only gibberish. Technically you hadn’t arranged tonight’s meeting either, rather she’d given you a puzzle, and you’d solved it.
  93. >But she wasn’t bullshitting you. She couldn’t have been. There was too much work behind all of it. You don’t put together numerical ciphers to fuck with a kid in his basement. There had to be something to this, but all that seemed to come was static.
  94. >You flip an ear cuff off again and lean back, propping your feet up on the desk and crossing them. Your stomach complains a little.
  95. >“Toss me a hot pocket, will ‘ya?”
  96. >“Thought you said we didn’t need that third box. Told you it was going to be a long night.”
  97. >“Yeah, yeah; I’ll toss you a five, okay?”
  98. >The turnover, still steaming from the microwave, sails breezily through the air and breaks in half across your index finger as you go to catch it. You swallow the halves in sequence, and lick your fingers. You turn to Kim, trying your best to not to agonize over the radio.
  99. >“So, have they told us when the invasion starts?”
  100. >“Just about Area 51. They reverse engineer propulsion systems there apparently. A bunch of people say they saw it. Interesting shit; might explain the black triangle last Summer.”
  101. >You could definitely have done with an explanation for the black triangle last Summer. The two of you had been smoking on a hill overlooking town, backed up against a stand of trees. It had drifted past you as silent as the clouds did, seams in its skin pulsing blue and purple. You tried to tell yourself it was something in the smoke. That it had been laced or some shit. But really, you knew that wasn’t so.
  102. >“Think that could really be what it was?”
  103. >“What, you don’t think the government is hiding shit from us? They still claim Area 51 doesn’t exist; we’ve got all the pictures of that you could want.”
  104. >“Oh, I figure they’re hiding plenty of shit. Just don’t have enough faith in them to bet it’s anything that cool.”
  105. >Frankly you’re not sure if you’d rather it be a black project or outright alien.
  106. >“What do you figure they hide then?”
  107. >“Same as any group of people. Shady dealings, backroom reciprocity, and a lot more sex than anyone cares to consider. I like your shadow government better though; they have much better taste. If that triangle really was something, I bet it would have been pretty sexy up close.”
  108. >“What do you mean if? You saw it same as I did.”
  109. >You shrug.
  110. >“I don’t fucking know what to make of it. If they’re here, why don’t they talk?”
  111.  
  112. >The radio buzzes again, and a voice emerges from a whine of interference. You recognize it this time.
  113. >“G-7-X-R-I.”
  114. >It’s slow and jagged speech, and would have sounded nearly robotic if it weren’t for the tinge of embarrassment that seemed to cling to the syllables as they crackled over the speakers. It’s dense but intelligible, and unmistakably female. Just like before. Your blood ices. You motion to Kim frantically.
  115. >“I fucking told you. Check this out.”
  116. >Kim pushes off his desk with a scuffed tennis shoe and rolls lazily over.
  117. >“Is she hot?”
  118. >That question probably shouldn’t have taken you off guard.
  119. >“I don’t know!”
  120. >You definitely hope so.
  121. >“Does she sound hot?”
  122. >“What does that even mean?”
  123. >The radio crackles again.
  124. >“G-7-X-R-I Q-S-T, is anyone on the air tonight? M-S-G to QS... P to S-5-K-S-C.”
  125. >It’s as if she’s reading off cue cards, but you don’t give a fuck. Your composure shatters instantly. You slapped the transmit key.
  126. >“Yeah! yeah, I’m here.”
  127. >Gene Kranz is nowhere to be found. You probably sounded like a twelve-year-old, but it would have to do.
  128. >“G-7-X-R-I, QR...X? Z! I, uh, I, I, uh, QRZ?”
  129. >You hadn’t identified yourself. What an idiot! You panic a second but claw a little composure back. At least she’s having trouble with the codes. Hell, she seems to struggle even more with the words in between.
  130. >Maybe she’s as in over her head as you are.
  131. >You clear your throat a third time.
  132. >“This is S5KSC. QSO 12/2 at 0200 hours. You have a QSP for me?”
  133. >Last conversation, yadda yadda, and did she have a message for you?
  134. >You’d sounded pretty cool saying it too.
  135. > “S-5-K-S-C!”
  136. >It’s slow, but you swear she sounds excited. Must not be a native speaker, but you could get past that, right? Maybe she’s Japanese.
  137. >Accent isn’t quite right, but it’s okay to hope, right?
  138. >“Q - R - K?”
  139. > “I read you loud and clear G7X, solid 5.”
  140. >That you’d sounded good saying. Somehow, across whatever space and time, you can almost feel her grin. Kim elbows you.
  141. >“I’ll be damned; she sounds pretty cute.”
  142. >You stare him down in response and make sure you hadn’t been transmitting for that. You hadn’t.
  143. >It’s quiet awhile; the more you think about it the more right he seems to be.
  144. >You drum your fingers some more, picking up “Smells like Teen Spirit” this time.
  145. >The headphones pop again, and you refocus.
  146. > “Hello, childr-- --of Earth.”
  147. >It’s a different voice. A male child. It sounds like she’s cut it to hell, but you’ve seen far too much Cosmos not to recognize it immediately. The English greeting from the Golden Record.
  148. >Your mental image of her jumps from a cautiously optimistic 7 to a full retard 11/10. This is a playboy tier asian exchange student space geek. You’re totally sure of it. Your little slice of anime is about to become real.
  149. > “Uh, hi,” you say, suddenly very thankful that Gene Kranz is alive, and thus not rolling in his grave at your cringy abuse of his radio voice. But shit, you’ve got to do better than “hi.”
  150. >You’ve got to show her you know what she’s on about.
  151. > “Track 1, dumbass. Quote track 1.”
  152. >For the first time that night you’re glad Kim is there.
  153. >“I send greetings on behalf of the people of our planet.”
  154. >He gives you a thumbs up and pushes himself back across the room.
  155. > The signal goes dead, then pops back to life, sounding flatter and duller.
  156. > “M - S - G”.
  157. >Another pop in the signal. You reach for a notepad but find it missing. Somehow, in that second of panic, you still catch it when Kim throws it to you.
  158. >Then comes a flurry of beeps
  159. >.-..-.--..--------------
  160. >Shit, if it’s morse, it doesn’t say anything. You must have fucked it up; that or she’s testing you somehow. Or what if this is some kind of secret spy shit, and you just happened to get the challenge question? Your blood runs cold.
  161. >She doesn’t give you time to ponder the question.
  162. >.----
  163. >-------------------.--..----..--.
  164. >.----.-..----------------------------------
  165. >Holy fuck, your heart is racing.
  166. >Kim has pushed himself back over and is staring at the notepad, face flushed.
  167. > “Dude. Do you think this might be, like, some--”
  168. >You aren’t transmitting, but hide the microphone in your hands just in case.
  169. > “Secret Squirrel shit, yeah,” you agree hurriedly.
  170. >“Think it might have something to do with what Lear’s talking about? Like they’re ‘gunna try to cover it up or something?”
  171. >The thought sends a chill down your spine.
  172. > “I don’t fucking know! I doubt it.”
  173. >You’re not sure you actually doubt it.
  174. >“You going to keep talking to her?”
  175. >For what may have been the first time in your life, you’d been too wrapt to consider the risks. You still can’t quite make sense of them. The words you find yourself saying don’t seem to reflect the feeling in your gut.
  176. > “We’ve got the message either way. We’re a loose end whether we keep going or not. I want to get to get to the bottom of it.”
  177. >Holy shit, you’d never thought you’d say something that cool, like, ever. Kim’s face lights up.
  178. > “Keep her on the air, Anon. This could be big.”
  179. >You turn back just in time.
  180. > “Q - T - H?”
  181. >Location. Shit, should you tell her? Should you lie? You look to Kim but he’s focused on the code. You ignore the pit in your stomach and do your best to reason through it.
  182. >You can still feign ignorance. Be honest. Play it cool. You’re just a high school senior talking to some asian chick.
  183. >Hell, that’s probably still what’s really going on, right? Your imagination is getting the better of you, that’s all.
  184. >Right?
  185. > “Sandusky, in a basement under five feet of snow. You?”
  186. >Static for a second.
  187. > “Q - T - H?”
  188. > “Sandusky. How do you read G7X?”
  189. > “5, S - 5 - K. Q - T - H?”
  190. >Your stomach churns, adrenaline tickling the lining. You’re pretty sure you know what she wants, and you’re pretty sure you shouldn’t give it to her. Somehow you find yourself starting anyway.
  191. > “1.4489° North, 82.7080° West. You?”
  192. >You put a little more emphasis on the question at the end this time.
  193. >The transmission hiccups again and comes back in the other, somewhat nicer quality.
  194. > “Earth,” it rings plaintively, in the voice of the boy from the record.
  195. >It pops back over again.
  196. >-..---.. /  --.----- / -...-.-. / --.----- / -...--.. / -..-.... / -..-...-
  197. >You’re really starting to have some doubts about the geeky-asian-chick-trolling-you theory.
  198.  
  199.  
  200. >Chapter 2, Lake Effect
  201.  
  202. >The radio has been dead for a few minutes.
  203. >You acknowledged her transmission, but no reply came. Earlier that evening that would have had you biting your nails, but now you’re thankful for the respite. You have work to do.
  204. >Kim is sitting beside you now, taking generous swigs from a Coke can as he fiddles with the dots and lines scribbled on your notebook.
  205. >Art Bell drones softly in the background, half forgotten.
  206. >Each of you had tried a few solutions, but neither of you seemed to be getting anywhere.
  207. >Through a haze of caffeine, taurine, and fatigue, one thing is clear:
  208. >It’s not goddamn Morse.
  209. >None of it is fucking Morse, not straight up.
  210. >There’s got to be some kind of cipher.
  211. >You suppose you should have known she wouldn’t make it that easy. Right now the only lead you have is the second line of the message.
  212. >.----
  213. >The number one.
  214. >You’ve looked that up, down, and sideways, but it doesn’t seem to make any goddamn sense.
  215.  
  216. >The swinging light has long since stilled, and the dancing monsters returned to sleep in the jagged shadows of dusty computers and overstuffed file organizers. Through the floorboards above drips the melancholy gong of the pendulum clock in your hallway.
  217. >1:00 A.M.
  218. >You stretch, shake your head, and crack another Coke.
  219. >It’s a damn good thing you’re on Christmas break, because this is shaping up to be a long night. The only C you’d ever gotten in High School you’d gotten on a math quizz after a night like this.
  220. >They don’t generally send you to space if you get C’s.
  221. >Kim inhales suddenly and raises an index finger, but it wilts like a dead man’s dick before he can say anything.
  222. >If Kim can’t get it, you don’t hold out much hope that you can.
  223. >But you have to try anyway.
  224. >No, a little voice reminds you.
  225. >Do or do not, there is no try.
  226. >You were about to land your perfect asian girl, and the two of you were going to go to MIT together and get jobs at JPL.
  227. >Or maybe you were about break a government conspiracy wide open, and be the man to tell the world that there is nothing between us and heaven, and that the stars are ours for the taking.
  228. >You could do this. You didn’t come this far to drop the X-Wing. You were smart, right?
  229. >Your teachers said you were smart. Your parents said you were smart. A few colleges had even started courting you, though none of them were MIT, and you hadn’t much intention of giving them the time of day.
  230. >You could figure this out. No way in hell you were just going to slink off and play some Starfox, as good an idea as that sounded.
  231. >Suddenly the radio shrieks like a fox.
  232. >That sound they like to make late at night in the woods, particularly when you’re trying your hardest not to worry about skinwalkers.
  233. >You leap to your feet and jog back over, crashing into the desk a little as you snatch at the headphones.
  234. >Nothing but pops and squeals.
  235. >You call into the static, but it goes unheeded.
  236. >Antenna must have gotten fucked.
  237. >What fucking timing. No wonder you stopped hearing her.
  238. >Better than her just leaving you hanging, you suppose, but if you lost her then, who the hell knew when you might get another shot at it?
  239. >If the asian exchange student theory was sound, then you’d only get another if you were lucky.
  240. >But if it wasn’t
  241. >If it was Secret Squirrel shit, or any of the more exotic ideas starting to condense in your imagination
  242. >Then this was probably the only shot you’d ever get.
  243. >The next few minutes could be the difference between a life-altering, hell, a world-shattering revelation, and a fun little anecdote to tell at parties.
  244. >You don’t go to many of those anyway.
  245. >You throw the headset back down and scramble for the window over the couch.
  246. >Kim rolls somewhat more hurriedly over as you fight with the window latch
  247. > “Told you the weather was getting bad. Think the antenna blew off?”
  248. >There’s actually some urgency behind his voice for once.
  249. > “Yeah, maybe. Just get up here and help me, will ‘ya?”
  250. >You manage to knock the window free again, haul yourself up from the basement, and flop into the snow like a seal.
  251. >It doesn’t feel like much at first, then it starts to melt against your skin
  252. >Tendrils of cold work their way into you, stinging like jellyfish tentacles.
  253. >Your old, pizza stained t-shirt is already soaked by the time you haul yourself to your feet, though it wasn’t doing you much good anyway.
  254. >Your socks follow in short order.
  255. >The weather had grown a lot worse over the course of the night.
  256. >Despite the darkness, you can make out the distended iron bellies of clouds rolling overhead, their matted plumes glowing an otherworldly amber in the lights of the city below.
  257. >A fast, ghostly wind whistles in the eves.
  258. >It’s almost like being on Venus, you think.
  259. >A very cold Venus
  260. >Given what happened to Pioneer and the Venera missions, you’re pretty sure it’s as close to Venus as you care to get.
  261. >Somewhere behind you a chain of curses rings out as Kim hauls himself up, and into a few feet of lake effect snow.
  262. > “This had better be aliens, or she better be really hot,” he shivers.
  263. >You swear and turn to face the house.
  264. >An extendable ladder runs up two stories from the basement window to the roof, cables coiled up the right side like a holiday garland and steps frozen like fish in a grocery store.
  265. >You hurry up and throw yourself at it
  266. >Usually when you fucked up and missed something great, it’s because you thought twice.
  267. >Or five or six times, or more.
  268. >This time you’re not going to give yourself the chance.
  269. >The ground falls away beneath you very quickly, your footholds precarious but ardent, your hands searing on the icy metal until it feels like you’re grabbing stovetops.
  270. >Up, hand over hand, rung by rung. The ladder jostles and flexes in the wind and under your weight.
  271. >Usually that gives you pause, but right now you barely notice.
  272. >You clamber onto the roof, kicking some snow aside and sheltering your face in the crook of your arm.
  273. >The antenna is on the near side of the roof, but doesn’t look very close to you.
  274. >The web-like structure bows and dances in the wind, weighed down by a coating of ice that makes it glitter in the warm, pastel shades of the Christmas lights hanging from the eaves.
  275. >It’s almost pretty, but a particularly precarious step refocuses your attention. Kick away the snow. Step. Repeat. Fortunately the roof is mostly dry underneath, and the slant angle not quite so severe as it appears.
  276. >You peer over the edge and call out to Kim.
  277. > “The connections look good down there?”
  278. > “Looks pretty good. What have you got up there?”
  279. > “Fuckloads of ice. ‘Gunna be an adventure.”
  280. > “Just remember man, this could be it. This could be the big one!”
  281. > “Yeah, well why don’t you climb up here and help me?”
  282. > “I’m not climbing that fucking thing in this weather.”
  283. >Kim may or may not also be a little scared of heights. He claims he isn’t, but you’re pretty sure he’s full of it, and make sure to tell him that every time you find yourselves somewhere with a view.
  284. > “Even to break the alien secret wide open? Just think, it could be you on Coast to Coast after Lear. You could be the guy to break the news to everyone.”
  285. > “Fuck, man. Alright. But this had better be about aliens. The chick isn’t going to cut it, especially if it’s you she’s interested in.”
  286. >The ladder starts to shake and shimmy again as he climbs. You turn back to the antenna.
  287. >The ice problem is a little worse up close, which is probably good because at least it provides a measure of certainty.
  288. >From each wire dangles forests of ice cycles, each rooted in thick patches of rime.
  289. >A good shaking shatters a lot of the crystals. About half the ice cycles fall; the rime splits but it doesn’t go anywhere. You set to scraping it with a nail.
  290. >It’s slow work, but you’re making progress.
  291. >If only you’d brought a fucking knife.
  292. >Your hands have already numbed to a dull ache. It can’t be more than 20 degrees, and humid at that.
  293. >You’re shivering like a one of those little designer dogs.
  294. >You can’t have more than a few minutes on the frostbite front.
  295. >Briefly you remember how foolish and idiotic this idea is, but you remind yourself that caution doesn’t ever seem to get you anywhere.
  296. >We choose to de-ice the antenna
  297. >and meet the girl
  298. >and do the other things...
  299. >not because they are easy
  300. >but because they are hard!
  301. >Presently the ladder knocks against the roof under Kim’s weight. You’re looking forward to his help.
  302. >The wind is building still further, and the clouds seem to draw nearer as you work. Thunder rocks the sky in the middle distance and rolls by like a freight train.
  303. >Wire by wire you scrape, the numbness working its way up your arms like creeping ivy.
  304. >Come on, you’re halfway there. Kim will be helping in a second. You can do this. You’ve got to talk to her. This could be it.
  305. >A sharper boom cracks overhead, and then another roll of thunder follows.
  306. >You’re not sure about that sharp one. It didn’t sound quite right, not like thunder.
  307. >The back of your mind screams at you what it sounded like
  308. >A sonic boom
  309. >You’re doing your best not to listen, and scraping as fast as you can.
  310. >Snow gathers in your hair and soaks it to the scalp.
  311. >Keep working
  312. >Scrape. Scrape. Scrape.
  313. >It’s getting a little easier.
  314. >You can see better now.
  315. >There’s more light. It’s soft, but it’s there. A very pale blue, not like the christmas lights.
  316. >Did the clouds seriously part? You’re not sure that should be possible.
  317. >You look over your shoulder, and your heart just about fucking quits.
  318. >The amber glow from the clouds is all but gone, blocked by the span of a great black triangle.
  319. >No more than twenty feet away, it slides by with the easy grace of a reef shark, the surface of its wings and leading and trailing edges seeming to flex and boil, playing with the wind the way a seagull’s feathers do.
  320. >You can’t bring yourself to breathe or move or think.
  321. >It’s all real.
  322. >Kim had been right all along.
  323. >This had to be a fucking dream, but the cold bit at your eyes and nose like a cobra, and you knew it wasn’t.
  324. >If you hadn’t been so sure, you might have thrown yourself off the roof in hopes of waking.
  325. >It slides overhead and banks, beginning to circle the roof with slow deliberation.
  326. >Its skin pulses with veins of blue.
  327. >A warm-looking blue
  328. >Blue like tropical water.
  329. >It seems almost close enough to touch.
  330. >A sense of calm settles over you like a lead blanket.
  331. >You’re drawn in.
  332. >It’s like sleepwalking. You can’t stop. You can’t think. You crane your neck. You step. You reach out to it. It’s beautiful.
  333. >Then the snow gives way, and the spell shatters.
  334. >You’re lying supine in the snow, staring at a bleak, violent sky.
  335. >Overhead the thunder rolls again, and then it fades.
  336. >from somewhere in the distance echoes the report of a sonic boom.
  337. >So that’s a no on the exchange student, then?
  338.  
  339. >You and Kim regroup inside, hurriedly toweling dry and backing up against the water heater with your notepad.
  340. >Kim had seen it too. He didn’t get as good a look as you did, but he’d seen it.
  341. >He’d also fallen, it turns out.
  342. >What’s weird is neither of you seem to be hurt at all.
  343. >There’s a lot of snow on the ground, but not that much.
  344. >He says he doesn’t really remember falling, just being on the ground.
  345. >You don’t either.
  346. >But it’s not worth pondering now. You’re almost certain you know what’s missing.
  347. >It makes sense suddenly, as if that ...thing told you while you were in the trance. It was so obvious. Why hadn’t you thought of it? All that talk about the record, and it had never occurred to you.
  348. > “Kim, what if it’s not a cipher.”
  349. > “What do you mean not a fucking cipher. You seeing something there I don’t?”
  350. > “What if it’s binary?”
  351. >Kim raises an eyebrow, though after what you just saw you’re not sure you can take the very idea of skepticism seriously anymore.
  352. > “That doesn’t look like binary to me. I guess maybe the last, but not the others.”
  353. > “No dude, I think I’ve seen the others before. I think I might know where they’re from.”
  354. >The heat’s nice, but you’ve got work to do.
  355. >You peel yourself away from the water heater and rip a poster off the wall behind the radio.
  356. >The record cover
  357. >Falling back against the water heater, you spread it on your lap under the notebook.
  358. >The timing for the video scan. Check.
  359. >The record speed codes. Check.
  360. >She wasn’t trying to tell you anything with those codes.
  361. >Except the last one.
  362. >That was nowhere on the record.
  363. >She was just trying to tell you it was in binary.
  364. >Kim doesn’t seem to take that as quite the revelation you do, but he plays along.
  365. >You plot out the last message, the one that had come just a little before the Encounter.
  366. >C U SOON
  367. >Your blood runs so cold you stop shivering.
  368. >Tentatively you shuffle back to the radio. The headphones are happily chirping away. You’re more than a little scared to pick them up.
  369. >But hesitation never got you anywhere.
  370. >On they go.
  371. >Three transmissions are looping patiently and consistently.
  372.  
  373. >-.-.--.- / --.----- / -.-.-.-. / --.----- / -.--.... / -.--.-..
  374.  
  375. >--..-.--/--..---./.-..----/--..---./--..-..-/--.--.../--..-.-./--..--.-/--.-...-/--..-..-/--.---.-/--.-----/-.--...-/--.-----/--...---/--..---./.-..----/--..--../--..--../--.--.../--..--.-/--..---./--.-...-/--..-..-/--.---.-/--.-----/-.-.-.../--.-...-/--.-----/--..---./--..--.-/--.-..../--..---./--..-.-./--.-----/-.------/--.-----/--..--.-/--..-.--/--..----/--..----/--.-...-/--.-----/-.----../--.-----/-.-.-.-./--.-...-
  376.  
  377. >-.----../-..----./-...--.-/-..--.-./-..--..-/-...-.-./-..-..--/--.-...-/--.-----/-.--...-/-..-..../-...-.--/--.-----/-..-..--/-..----./-...-.--/-..--.-./--.-...-/--.-----/-.-.---./-...-.-./-..----./-..-...-/-...-.--/-...-.-./-..-..-./--.-----/-.---..-/-..----./-...-..-/-..-..../-...--.-/--.-...-/---.-.-/--.-..-./-.--.-../-.-.--.-/--.-----/-.---.../--..-.../-.-..---
  378.  
  379. >You finish writing them down, and in the space of a minute the radio goes dead.
  380. >School or not, you’re pretty sure it’s time for some goddamn sleep.
  381.  
  382.  
  383. >Chapter 3, The Day Anon Stood Still
  384.  
  385. >R U OK
  386. >41°16'52.6" N 81°33'21.6" W. 12/15 @ 2400. C U.
  387. >Careful. Not late. Quantum Favor. -KR G7X
  388.  
  389. >There were no two ways about this, were there?
  390. >No pretending that it hadn’t happened, or had at least been a coincidence,
  391. >Even if it was starting to feel like it had all been a dream.
  392. >The message was clear as day.
  393. >You just wish she would have answered your questions about whether that second line was an offer or an order.
  394.  
  395. >It’s the 14th now. You haven’t had any contact with G7X since the twelfth.
  396. >Kim has been fucking beside himself for the past few days, and you can tell it’s everything he can do to keep quiet.
  397. >You’ve been pretty fucked up too, but telling people hasn’t been at the top of your list.
  398. >There’s only one question on your mind.
  399. >Should you go?
  400. >It was almost like that time last year when a senior girl asked you to the prom.
  401. >You’d been pretty sure it was a trick, like what that one girl pulled on Kim.
  402. >You’d agonized over it for weeks.
  403. >Your father had said to go.
  404. >Your mother had said to go.
  405. >They’d both given very good, compelling reasons.
  406. >But you hadn’t.
  407. >And next week she’d come to school crying, wondering why the hell you’d stood her up like that.
  408. >You’d tried to explain, but that had been worth about as much as you would expect. In retrospect you should have lied and said you got really sick suddenly or something.
  409. >But you know how this story goes. You beat yourself up over it every couple of days.
  410. >This is kind of like that, you suppose. Only so, so, so much worse.
  411. >Drive an hour through awful weather to make what might be humanity’s first formal contact with alien life, or maybe you’ll just be
  412. >Stood up
  413. >Atomized
  414. >Violated with an anal probe
  415. >Pressed into some kind of servitude
  416. >Hell, maybe it’s like Alien, and she just wants to lay eggs in your chest.
  417. >Just like the fucking prom, right?
  418. >Whoever or whatever G7X is, she seems to have made it her mission to test your “hesitation never got me anywhere” resolve to its absolute outer limits.
  419.  
  420. >Every day you mull it over, and the night is even worse.
  421. >You’ve slept about half what you should in the last two days.
  422. >You’d even broken down and told your parents all about it.
  423. >If someone would just tell you not to go, you could put together how you were going to avoid it.
  424. >The trouble was your parents probably thought your story about “going to meet some weird UFO chick” was code for “go smoke weed in the woods with friends, do teenager shit, and get into trouble.
  425. >They thought it would be good for you.
  426. >Go fucking figure.
  427. >It doesn’t help that Kim has been practically living at your place.
  428. >He’s made his position pretty clear.
  429. >He needs to know if what he saw that night was real.
  430. >If so, he needs to face whatever creatures these are.
  431. >And since he spent all his money on the Amiga,
  432. >He needs YOU to drive him.
  433.  
  434. >So all that had landed you here.
  435. >Behind the wheel of your 1979 Saab 900 hatchback,
  436. >10 miles out of Cuyahoga Valley National Park,
  437. >Lodged in the third snowdrift of the night.
  438. >The clock on the dash ticks over 11:15 P.M. as you throw it back into reverse, and try one last time to set yourself free without dragging your sorry ass back into the snow.
  439. >By sheer force of will you manage to snag a little traction and haul yourself back onto the road.
  440. >It’s not snowing right now, but the sky is dark and brooding. The wind whisks thin ripples of blowing snow across the roadway, throttling the meager glow of your headlights until it seems they’re shining through a few layers of wax paper.
  441. > “Man on the Moon” is playing quietly on the radio, cutting in and out here and there.
  442. >That should probably strike you a little uncanny, but you barely notice it given they play it so damn often.
  443. >The heater is chugging, but it manages to keep up. About half the directional louvers are broken; fortunately they’re broken in largely useful directions.
  444. >The drive has been quiet, and surprisingly pensive for how much of a hassle it’s been.
  445. >Kim was excited as hell in the beginning and frankly you’d been thankful for that, but once the first few miles rolled by, he started getting quiet.
  446. >Reality setting in, you guessed. He’d never been very good at comprehending the weight of situations until he was in them.
  447. >Which was why he did stupid things like buy Amiga 3000s.
  448. >But you’d come this far, and the bravado from the roof antenna escapade is coming back to you little-by-little.
  449. >...and MEET THE GIRL,
  450. >and do the other things,
  451. >Not because they are easy,
  452. >But because they are HARD.  
  453. >Hard probably isn’t the right word for exactly what this is, but you’ll take your inspiration where you can get it. There is no going back now, you’ve come much too far for that.
  454. >If you didn’t get yourself killed just driving out here, what were the odds that she would do it?
  455. >Besides, she’d asked if you were okay after the fall.
  456. >That was reassuring, wasn’t it?
  457. >Not as much as you’d have liked.
  458. >But there was the sign for the park, glowing spectrally in the light of your high-beams.
  459. >You take a deep breath and make a left.
  460. >The gates are shut of course, so you park your car in the most secluded spot you can find, zip up your windbreaker, and turn the key as if pulling a pin from a grenade.
  461. >The engine shudders to a stop. You pop the door open and peel yourself from the crappy, torn leather of the driver’s seat.
  462. >The cold greets you like your Aunt Jenny on Christmas.
  463. >Far more enthusiastically than you’d like.
  464.  
  465. >You’ve been to Cuyahoga Valley National Park before. It’s been awhile, a few years maybe, but not all that long.
  466. >You used to go all the time as a kid, and while your interest had waned a little in high school, you still liked the place and had a lot of happy memories there.
  467. >You know it pretty well, you think, but it is something of a different place in the winter, especially at night.
  468. >The trees, full and green in the Summer and spectacularly colored in the Fall, tower over you stark, black, and leafless, gnarled roots digging into the snow like cats’ claws.
  469. >The trails meander through hills and valleys painted ghostly white with snow, their views desolate and their borders blurred.
  470. >As you walk you half-expect to be accosted by the frozen zombies of French and German soldiers, rising from shallow graves in deep trenches to shuffle about, fending the cold away with scarves of razorwire.
  471. >Never before have you wished so heavily that you were into guns at least 10% as much as you were into rockets.
  472. >Your father owned a beautiful Smith and Wesson in .357. You’d only fired it a few times, but goddamn you’d have liked to have it now.
  473. >But all you have is a backpack full of floppy disks and CDs that Kim had suggested you bring. Encyclopedias and media and shit. A good idea, certainly, but they weren’t going to do you any good if things went south.
  474. >So you trudge on, thumb hooked around your waist, pretending you’ve got a gun there.
  475. >Kim, who’s walking beside you, is staying just as quiet as you are.
  476. >His hands are thrust in the pockets of his pale blue windbreaker, his head down against the wind, eyes staring at his black moon boots as he trudges.
  477. >The back of your mind toys with the idea of letting him get ahead awhile, then hurling a snowball at him.
  478. >Might ease the tension a little.
  479. >You try to slow down stealthily, but he slows down with you.
  480. >You slide your jacket sleeve back a little and check the cheap digital watch on your wrist.
  481. >11:45 P.M.
  482. >She’d said not to be late.
  483. >No time for that shit anyway.
  484. >You’ve got a quarter mile yet.
  485.  
  486. >You don’t have a GPS.
  487. >Kim’s family might be wealthy, but he was never outdoorsy enough to try to arrange that.
  488. >Close as you can tell though, the coordinates lead you to a basin in the rock.
  489. >You’ve been here before.
  490. >A rim of shale extends a foot or so from the wall of the depression, and in the Summer channels a narrow creek into a fine, misty waterfall.
  491. >That’s all frozen now, the water locked halfway to the little pool below, as if time itself had stopped when the snow came.
  492. >It glows with the eerie still-life of a model train set, water cast in glue, glitter, and blue food coloring.
  493. >It’s beautiful in the Summer. You used to spend long hours here reading and catching little frogs.
  494. >You didn’t bring a book though, and there’s no sound save the faint rush of wind in the trees.
  495. >Skinwalkers are a Navajo thing. The Navajo didn’t live here, right?
  496. >You try to think back to your U.S. history class last year.
  497. >You don’t think so
  498. >This is Shawnee territory, if you remember correctly.
  499. >You’re pretty sure they don’t have Skinwalkers.
  500. >That doesn’t make you feel as much better as you hoped it would.
  501.  
  502. >11:52.
  503. >The waiting was already painful.
  504. >Kim is pacing. Before long so are you.
  505. >You pace to stop the shaking.
  506. >It’s because of the cold, right?
  507. >Yeah, that’s part of it, but you know that isn’t the whole truth.
  508.  
  509. >11:55.
  510. >Kim sat down under the overhang. He’s got a faraway look in his eye, and is drumming his fingers on his knee to the Super Mario Brother’s tune.
  511. >You join him reluctantly, and the two of you watch the fog of your breath crystalize on the ice of the frozen waterfall.
  512. >This could really be it, you remind him, as much for your own sake as for his.
  513.  
  514. >11:58.
  515. >Your teeth are chattering, which is good, because focusing on being cold is better than focusing on your watch.
  516. >You’re still counting seconds with taps of your boot though.
  517. >120 of those fuckers left. Probably less now.
  518. >You haven’t heard a sonic boom, and that’s making you nervous.
  519. >At first you’d thought the “stood up” option might be the best outcome here, but the more you thought about that the less you liked it.
  520. >If something went down, you knew what was happening.
  521. >If she was a no-show, then it was like that spider you see on the bathroom wall, and then look back and it’s gone.
  522. >The last thing you wanted this situation to become was a Spider you Couldn’t See.
  523.  
  524. >12:02
  525. >Sheer anxiety had led you to forget your watch awhile. Still no sonic boom, still no pale blue light. Still no G7X. She’d said not to be late; did that mean you could go? Where would you meet again? When? Would you ever? Was it over?
  526.  
  527. >12:06
  528. >You’re actually a little disappointed. Maybe even hurt. You’d come all this way in good faith. You’d come for answers. And now what? What would happen next? Would anything come of it? You couldn’t know!
  529. >Was it all a trick? Had it been CIA shit after all?
  530. >They’d tricked you into coming out here, and now they were going to throw you into the back of a van! You’d never see your family again!
  531. >Shit, what if that was really it?
  532. >You can’t wait there any longer. It doesn’t feel right. You grab Kim by the sleeve and stand hurriedly, turning back the way you came.
  533. >The snow is unsteady beneath your feet, but the going is easier for some reason.
  534. >It’s easier to see, you realize.
  535. >Easier because of a pale blue light.
  536. >You stop in your tracks as if you’d never had any momentum to begin with. Or maybe that was It’s doing.
  537. >You turn around very slowly, knowing all-too-well what’s going to be there.
  538. >You don’t want to see it nearly as much as it felt like you did a minute ago.
  539. >Kim wasn’t ready for you to stop. You’d still had his sleeve. He’d tripped and fallen. He was facing the other way now, the blue lighting his face like one of those plasma bolt lamps from Spencer’s.
  540. >The look on his face is shock, or maybe horror.
  541. > “Holy fuck, man.”
  542. >It’s a horse whisper. The sort of sound you make when you scream for help in a dream.
  543. >Two instincts compete in you, each pulling so hard they seem about to tear you in half.
  544. >Turn around.
  545. >Run.
  546. >Turn around.
  547. >Run.
  548. >Hesitation never got you anywhere.
  549. >You take a deep breath and shut your eyes.
  550. >Not because they are easy,
  551. >You pivot on your heels and exhale slowly.
  552. >But because they are hard!
  553. >You wrench open your eyes.
  554.  
  555. >It’s floating there listlessly like one of those heavy mylar balloons, its black hulk almost invisible save for the blue veins, and the gently wavering silhouette of its dark chrome feathers as they knead at the air like cookie dough. A fine powder of snow churns in the air beneath it, in just the spot you’d run through not ten seconds ago.
  556. >It’s humming softly, as if for it’s own amusement.
  557. >Your breath stills, your heart in your throat.
  558. >If it was close before, it’s really close now. On the roof it had felt as if you could almost touch it. Now, if you took a couple steps and jumped up to reach it, you could have.
  559. >Hell, you could have LICKED it. Could have become that dumbass who got his tongue stuck to the flag pole, only you’d be stuck to a goddamn UFO.
  560. >It seems even bigger here, tucked neatly between the trees.
  561. >But you feel something you do recognize from the roof.
  562. >You’d been right about what that Black Triangle should look like up close, but maybe sexy wasn’t the right word.
  563. >It isn’t just a flying dorito.
  564. >It’s simple, elegant, powerful, and poised.
  565. >It’s beautiful.
  566. >And not like the ones on TV or in the movies.
  567. >It isn’t just smooth and futuristic, it’s sculpted.
  568. >It had a build not like a war machine, or even something beautiful the way the Space Shuttle was beautiful.
  569. >It’s built like a Howard Hughes airplane.
  570. >Like someone had poured their heart and soul into it.
  571. >Like they’d thrown every ounce of their being into that strange, exotic metal, and spent every thought and emotion they had on creating the most beautiful, functional thing they possibly could.
  572. >The sort of energy people imagine God put into creating the world.
  573. >Somehow, amid the surges of adrenaline-fueled panic, some part of your mind is in the eye of the hurricane. For that little part, everything is right with the Universe.
  574. >You take a step closer, and then another.
  575. >It’s almost as intimidating as it is enthralling,
  576. >But not QUITE.
  577. >So you get closer, and closer still.
  578. >Closer, until something changes.
  579. >A bit of the metal recedes, and from beneath it shines a bright, white light.
  580. >You don’t know why, but something clicks in your brain.
  581. >And you run.
  582. >You run harder and faster than you ever have.
  583. >Harder than you thought you ever could.
  584. >Harder than you thought was possible for anyone.
  585. >The cold, dead branches of trees lash at you like chain whips as they snap over your head and shoulders.
  586. >The snow crumbles beneath your feet as if the world itself is falling apart behind you.
  587. >You run and climb and clamber, even as your lungs burn with ice and your heart and mind beg for oxygen.
  588. >You can’t tell for how long, but it seems like an eternity.
  589. >You go faster and faster, but you never seem to get anywhere.
  590. >Just trees and more trees.
  591. >Hills and more hills.
  592. >Ice and more ice.
  593. >Like running on a treadmill.
  594. >Like running in a dream.
  595. >Is it chasing you?
  596. >You don’t know.
  597. >You don’t want to look back.
  598. >But you have to look back!
  599. >You repeat the mantra again, you chant it to yourself with the exhales of your breath.
  600. >because they are hard.
  601. >Because They Are Hard.
  602. >BECAUSE THEY ARE HARD.
  603. >You turn to look, and as you do you feel yourself falling.
  604.  
  605. >It’s a long fall. Long enough to think about what’s happening.
  606. >Which means it’s long enough to know you’re probably pretty fucked.
  607. >You don’t feel anything when you hit the ground, save the thud of your breath leaving your lungs.
  608. >You gasp for air and try to sit up as best you can, your vision swimming and tying knots with the trees towering over you.
  609. >A little comes back to you. Not much, but enough to haul yourself to sitting.
  610. >You’re sitting in waist-deep water.
  611. >Your left leg is bent the wrong way around.
  612. >The cold would probably be setting in if you could feel anything, but you’re well past that.
  613. >Not even your leg.
  614. >Your heart is still beating, and that means it’s time to go.
  615. >So you run.
  616. >Only you don’t run.
  617. >It’s only a few steps,
  618. >Then you’re face down in the water.
  619. >The world goes black before you can put another thought together.
  620.  
  621. >It’s still black when you start thinking again.
  622. >Then it’s white. Brilliant white.
  623. >White like staring at summer clouds.
  624. >You’re dead, surely.
  625. >You would be sure if your leg hadn’t set to hurting.
  626. >Hurting a lot.
  627. >You can’t see much, but you try to get your bearings.
  628. >You’re not in the water anymore, not as far as you can tell.
  629. >You’re on your back, and on top of something.
  630. >A table. You can find its edges with your hands and good leg.
  631. >A little shifting tells you it’s bent ergonomically, like a dentist’s chair leaned most of the way back.
  632. >Could Kim have found you?
  633. >Could they have gotten you to a hospital?
  634. >You doubt it, but they must have, right?”
  635. > “Mom?”
  636. > “Dad?”
  637. > “Kim?”
  638. > You try to come up with some other names, but decide against calling for your over-enthusiastic Auntie Jenny.
  639. >There’s only one left.
  640. >The one you’re pretty sure you don’t want it to be.
  641. >The one you’re terrifyingly certain it is.
  642. > “G7X?”
  643. > “S - 5 - K.”
  644. >It echoes around the room as if over an airport concourse intercom.
  645. >Sounding just like it did on the radio, though sharp and clear.
  646. >Your breath is fast and random, your voice is too.
  647. > “G7X, S5K. Where am I?”
  648. >You’re not sure why you said it that way. That had been all you could think of. Maybe just because it was the only way you’d ever spoken with her.
  649. > “Earth.”
  650. >The kid’s voice again, just like on the radio.
  651. >Then the audio scratches, and his father’s voice comes in it’s place.
  652. > “...pale, blue, dot.”
  653. > It scratches again.
  654. > “United States of America,” in the voice of John F. Kennedy.
  655. >Once more.
  656. > “Sandusky,” in your own.
  657. > That last one sends chills reverberating up and down your spine.
  658.  
  659. >You can see a little better now, and that isn’t doing your building panic any favors.
  660. >The room is circular, and plated in a similar reflective metal to the triangle’s skin, though the finish is a little more muted.
  661. >machines line the walls, chirping quietly to themselves.
  662. >That all confirms your fears of where you are, which would be bad enough in and of itself.
  663. >But the real problem is what you see when you lay back.
  664. >Overhead, a series of mechanical arms hangs from the ceiling, some holding lights and other s needles and probes.
  665. >Like H.R. Giger designed a chandelier.
  666. >It’s difficult to see in the harsh light, but the arm with the biggest needle is coming closer.
  667. >It’s big enough that you can see the steep, angular cut forming the tip of the pipette.
  668. >It’s descending over your sternum.
  669. >Over your lungs
  670. >Over your heart.
  671. >It’s getting awfully close, and doesn’t look about to stop.
  672. >You fight to move, but your body ignores you.
  673. >Not that you could have gotten very far anyway.
  674. >But maybe the thought had occurred to her too, because you hear a door shunt open. And then you hear footsteps. Soft, delicate footsteps.
  675. >They’re slow and calculated at first, but they quicken.
  676. >They’re getting closer.
  677. >You can almost see her.
  678. >You can almost see IT.
  679.  >You don’t want to look, but it might be the last thing you ever see.
  680. >You’re pretty sure you don’t want the last thing to be the fuckhuge needle.
  681. >You don’t want to look, but you know you have to.
  682. >You can still do it. It doesn’t have to all be for nothing. Even if you die here, you can do what you set out to do.
  683. >De-ice the antenna, and
  684. >MEET THE GIRL, and
  685. >Do the other thing.
  686. >Not because they are easy.
  687. >But because they are HARD.
  688. >You crane your neck to see.
  689.  
  690. >There’s not much to see but a flat silhouette, black as night against the harsh backlight. It seems to tower over you as you lay on the chair. It’s not quite scrawny, but perhaps wiry.
  691. >Amorphous folds hang from it in strange places, some of the edges hard and some of them soft.
  692. >Shapes you’d never seen before,
  693. >Not on any living creature.
  694. >But it’s the head that really gets you.
  695. >You can’t make out much in the flat bloom of the light, but it’s big.
  696. >And rises to peaks on either side with a distinct valley in between.
  697. >Your imagination runs the gamut of forms that could possibly make that shape, and doesn’t like a one of them.
  698. >It gets closer, and closer yet until it’s beside you. You feel a pressure on your chest, and then a sting. Your jacket hides the needle as it tears into your flesh.
  699. >As you close your eyes and wait for the end, something takes your hand.
  700. >Something soft and warm.
  701. >The pain surges under the needle and you can’t help a scream.
  702. >The grip gets a little tighter, and the speakers echo again.
  703. >“S - 5 - K.”
  704. > “We have nothing to fear...” in the voice of F.D.R.
  705. >And then the Portuguese Greeting from the record.
  706. >You know that one pretty well; you used it as an example when you wrote a report on the thing.
  707. >Maybe she knows that.
  708. > “Peace and Happiness to All.”
  709. >Suddenly you can’t feel the needle anymore, and in its place spreads a feeling of warmth.
  710. >It surges through your blood in tsunami.
  711. >It’s a strange feeling. An exotic feeling. You’re not sure you like it. After a second you’re really ready for it to stop.
  712. >But it IS fascinating.
  713. >And then it’s everywhere, and you can hardly feel it at all.
  714. >The pain in your leg fades, and a thousand other little scrapes and aches you didn’t know you had.
  715. >With the strange, soft thing in your hand,
  716. >Even the fear seems to fade.
  717. >And a profound sense of peace washes over you.
  718. >And then the world is black again,
  719. >And then your thinking stops.
  720.  
  721.  
  722. >Chapter 4, Close Encounters of the Furred Kind
  723.  
  724. >Your thoughts start up again.
  725. >You’re almost surprised to see them.
  726. >Despite the nice words G7X had given you, you’d figured the smart money was on being dead.
  727. >Evidently you’d backed the wrong horse.
  728. >The first thoughts that come to you are predictable ones:
  729.  
  730. >Holy fuck.
  731.     >Yep.
  732. >Where the hell am I?
  733.     >Might be best not to think about that.
  734. >What just happened?
  735.     >Good question.
  736. >Was any of it real?
  737.     >Probably.
  738.  
  739. >And then of course the one you’d been hoping wouldn’t occur to you:
  740.  
  741. >You need to open your eyes.
  742.     >You’d really rather not.
  743.  
  744. >So you take stock of everything else instead.
  745. >Your leg has started hurting again, which may or may not be a good sign.
  746. >It’s not nearly as bad as it was though, just dull surges of pain and a strange ache that seems to interfere with your mind’s idea of where your leg is supposed to be and what it’s supposed to be shaped like.
  747. >Your chest on the other hand feels like someone hit it with a fucking sledgehammer.
  748. >It’s not even just the needle site, though you doubt that’s helping.
  749. >You’re not looking forward to it, but breathing is something you’re going to have to get squared away.
  750. >You try a very delicate, shallow breath.
  751. >You manage no more than an eighth of a lungfull before every nerve you have flashes white hot, and you start wishing you’d just let yourself suffocate.
  752. >Now it feels like someone took out your ribs, put them through a blender, and then fired them back into your chest with a 12 gauge.
  753. >Off to a terrific start.
  754. >Your head and arms seem to be pretty nominal though, and, pain aside, your heart is beating.
  755. >You do have a little bit of a headache, but it’s an advil sort of headache.
  756. >Really, after your chest and leg, you feel more hung over than anything else.
  757. >Wait, it couldn’t really have all just been drugs, could it? Did you actually go out there just to do teenager shit and get into trouble? Maybe you got really, really high, and you just think that--
  758. > “S - 5 - K.”
  759. >Yeah, you figured that was too much to hope for.
  760. >You redirect some of your energy to pretending to be asleep. Whatever it is, it hasn’t killed you yet; you’re not in a hurry to find out what the conditions for that are. The rest of your attention you set to trying to get a handle on where you are.
  761. >Your arms, good leg, and back say you’re laying on something flat this time.
  762. >It’s pretty soft too, which is good because a stiff back would have been the icing on the fucking cake.
  763. >And there’s something over you.
  764. >Something warm and bulky, like a thick blanket.
  765. >Under the circumstances, you figure anything that simple is probably too much to hope for, too.
  766. >You’re thinking some kind of alien symbiote.
  767. >Probably got all manner of fleshy tubes twisting in and out of your body, eating you alive and replacing your organs with its own.
  768. >When you focus, you can almost feel it feeding.
  769. >Between the beeps and chirps that ring out now and again, you’re pretty sure this room is rectangular, and a little smaller than the last.
  770. >It also doesn’t seem quite so cleanly laid out. The sounds bounce around almost like they do in your basement, reaching you at various volumes, pitches, and lengths.
  771. >You fish an arm out from underneath the alien symbiote or whatever and test the air with it.
  772. >Nothing exotic, close as you can tell. Probably about 70 degrees; maybe a little drier than you’re used to.
  773. >Only then something takes your hand.
  774. >That soft thing again.
  775. >Your heart jumps into your throat and you flinch, which hurts like hell.
  776. >Hurts enough to make you yelp.
  777. >So much for pretending to be asleep. Not like it was going to do you any good anyway.
  778. > “S5K?”
  779. >The voice is a little different now. The pauses have shortened, and it’s grown a bit gentler and more natural. The pitch of the last syllable curves up inquisitively. Like it’s adapting.
  780. >You’re not sure if that makes it more or less creepy, but it definitely doesn’t help that it keeps jumping around the room, and you haven’t been hearing any movement.
  781. >The thing tightens on your hand.
  782. >You’re really starting to wonder what the hell that is.
  783. >The thought comes crawling back again.
  784. >You’ve got to open your eyes.
  785. >Whatever’s in store for you, it’s in store.
  786. >It’s going to be there whether your eyes are open or not.
  787. >You’re already observing it in a bunch of other, non-visual ways. It’s much too late for the quantum universe to change its mind on this.
  788. >Right now you’re totally helpless. You could at least know where, and what you’re helpless against.
  789. >Hesitation has never gotten you anywhere.
  790. >Yeah, and not hesitating got you here.
  791. >But now you are here.
  792. >Your mind swims with possibilities. The strange, baggy silhouette. The massive U-shaped head. The needles. The instruments. For every few seconds you think, your mind slaps together another ten terrifying predictions.
  793. >Only three things don’t fit with any of them.
  794. >That soft thing, for which your predictions include “mandibles”, “feelers”, and “horrifying device that feeds on your blood, sweat, and maybe fear”, definitely feels pretty nice.
  795. >You’re comfortable.
  796. >You’re not dead.
  797. >It’s now or sometime, you figure.
  798. >Hopefully not now or never.
  799. >You take the deepest breath your fucked up chest will let you, your blood surging with adrenaline.
  800. >This is it.
  801. >Meet the girl,
  802. >Not because it’s easy,
  803. >But because it’s hard!
  804.  
  805. >You wrench your eyes open again, and wherever you are greets you with a shot of dazzling light. Your headache ratchets up a couple notches.
  806. >It takes your eyes a minute to recover.
  807. >Your vision is foggy as it comes back, but workable.
  808. >Quickly you check the biggest tab you set for yourself.
  809. >The alien symbiote is, in fact, just a blanket.
  810. >You’ll be damned.
  811. >Now for the hard part.
  812. >You need to turn to the thing that’s got your hand.
  813. >You dig up some courage from somewhere, both for the pain and to face whatever’s waiting for you.
  814. >You haul yourself onto your side, yelping but managing not to cry out.
  815. >You walk your vision very nervously down the length of your arm, giving yourself as much time to turn back as possible.
  816. >Then you get to the hand, and your eyes snap wide open.
  817. >IT’S got your hand.
  818. >...she’s got your hand.
  819. >You’re not sure what you were expecting, but she’s a lot different in the light.
  820. >You suppose you were expecting more of the same. That sort of thing is all anybody else seemed to see, at least everyone that made it to tell the story.
  821. >Despite that last point, a lot of the dread fades.
  822. >It, or..., she, you suppose, isn’t that foreign at all.
  823. >Not that you aren’t completely flabbergasted. She could have been indistinguishable from a human, and she’d still be a goddamn alien.
  824. >But she’s not an octopus person, bizzare U-headed dinosaur thing, or sentient shade of blue either.
  825. >The awkward folds of her silhouette belong not to distended, pulsing flesh, but to a what amounts to a baggy, worn-out T-shirt.
  826. >The prongs of her head aren’t eyestalks or some bizarre double-brain, but rather a pair of ear flaps that swivel curiously at the little whimpers you’re trying your hardest to suppress.
  827. >And all that size amounts to little more than a few generous tufts of ice-white fur and a particularly bushy tail she has wrapped around behind her.
  828. >She could almost be a fox if she hadn’t the figure of a woman.
  829. >And not a bad one either. An ample chest and a noticeably tight, but believable waist for someone who wasn’t starving themselves. An eight or nine in your book, at least.
  830. >Kim might have been less generous, but you’d always liked the girl-next-door look. You bored of glamor rapidly. Your father had never really understood that either.
  831. >And maybe you had grown to like Starfox for a little more than the gameplay,
  832. >But surely this wasn’t the time to evaluate every taste you had. You were meeting a goddamn alien. You might be the first to do so ever, or at least the first to tell about it. This could be the dawn of a new era.
  833. >She, an alien, had chosen you out of 5,504,401,149 as the ambassador of the human race, and what had you done? Just as soon as you’d stopped being terrified, you’d worked out whether she might be good to have sex with.
  834. >You suppose there’s nothing more human than that.
  835. >THAT your father would understand.
  836. >And you’d be lying to suggest it isn’t making you feel a little more confident.
  837.  
  838. >You gather your breath and fight to raise yourself onto an elbow
  839. >You manage it with a not-particularly-masculine squeak.
  840. >So much for Gene Kranz, but there’s no way you’re going to keep that up for any real period of time anyway.
  841. >Her eyes widen as she hears you; her left ear flicks sympathetically.
  842. >Suddenly you feel that soft touch under you as she helps you the rest of the way to sitting.
  843. >You suppose you shouldn’t complain, but as she does, one thing does catch your eye and give you a little pause.
  844. >There’s a gun on her hip.
  845. >A sleek, silvery thing with wooden furniture and chrome-plated metal
  846. >Foreign inscriptions flash across its surface where the light gathers.
  847. >It strikes you a little antiquated even by Earth standards, but you resolve to keep a tab on it anyway.
  848. >She sits back again and crosses her legs, tail tucked away behind her. Half of her muzzle twitches into a crooked smile.
  849. >“S5K,” she greets you, assembling the sounds with delicate precision.
  850. >A misty-looking screen materializes in the air before you and flashes an image of a handshake, and then the encyclopedia article that goes with it.
  851. >It evaporates as quickly as it came, and she extends her paw to you again.
  852. >A little reluctantly, you take it.
  853. >It’s more dexterous than you were expecting. The toes are long, and articulate almost as your fingers do. They mesh with yours, though she’s short one.
  854. >You let her apply the pressure, and instantly you recognize the warm, soft feeling. You follow through with the shake. Her smirk strengthens a little; enough to make the out the gleam of her canine tooth.
  855. >“G7X,” you offer, a little breathlessly.
  856. >Certainly this wasn’t the thing you had been imagining on the far side of the radio.
  857. >She nods, perhaps a little half-heartedly. You’re no expert at reading whatever these things are, but you’re pretty sure that isn’t quite what she wants.
  858. >She turns her paw on herself again, and points the other to a stack of equipment across the room.
  859. > “G-7-X-R-I,” she says, shaping the sounds with her teeth as if by CnC machine.
  860. >Then she turns both paws on herself.
  861. > “Kal’Rashe.”
  862. >Those words ring just as clear, but her muzzle moves fluidly, and the calculation is missing from her eyes. She looks at you expectantly.
  863. >Frankly you’d rather just call her G7X, but it’s clear what she wants. Besides, you’re the ambassador to Earth. You, of all people. The last you could do is be assed to learn her name.
  864. >You purse your lips and try to work out how to make the sounds.
  865. > “Cull-Rash”
  866. >She smiles, but shakes her head.
  867. > “Kaal - R a y s h  e”
  868. > “Kal - Rushee,” you try again.
  869. > “Kal - Raysheh,” she repeats, a little slower.
  870. > “Kal’Rashe.”
  871. >Her grin breaks through to the other side of her muzzle, and she nods eagerly. Her paw turns to you again. That you can do.
  872. >“Anon.”
  873. >The screen materializes again, this time with waveform audio. Another window offers muzzle poses in sequence; she practices them a minute, and then the screens vanish again.
  874. > “Ay-nun?”
  875. > “Ay-non”
  876. > “Anon.”
  877. >You mirror her nod.
  878.  
  879. >You’ve just about relaxed when she reaches for her hip.
  880. >Your mind snaps alight like one of those glow sticks.
  881. >You’re about to die.
  882. >Panic replaces your blood in a hurry and your stomach ties itself into a knot.
  883. >But you’re not going that easily, right?
  884. >You’ve seen a few movies, and you’re on a goddamn alien spaceship.
  885. >You’ve come too far to go out like a bitch.
  886. >She may be extraterrestrial, but she’s not that BIG, right?
  887. >Without the ears, you might actually have a few inches on her.
  888. >And she doesn’t really look that tough, right?
  889. >She looks like she can probably take care of herself, but you can probably overpower her if you take the upper hand while you’ve got the chance.
  890. >Maybe she’s the first step of an invasion.
  891. >Maybe you’ll be stopping it in its tracks.
  892. >The weapon’s finish catches the light as she draws it, the characters burning themselves into your eyes as they flash again.
  893. >Now’s your chance.
  894. >You need to jump her. Not because it’s easy, but because it’s--
  895. >Or you could, you know, RUN.
  896. >You’ll be damned if that doesn’t sound like a better idea right now.
  897. >Unfortunately your leg isn’t as taken with it, and by the second stride you’re on the ground again, chest hurting so bad it may as well be missing.
  898. >This is it.
  899. >This is the end.
  900. >You look up at her towering over you, looking pretty goddamn scary all over again in spite of the fluffy tail and tattered t-shirt.
  901. >You can see her teeth laid bare, sharp, pearly, and neat.
  902. >Her eyes are wide and predatory.
  903. >Right?
  904. >You thought so, but you aren’t dead yet, and the harder you look, the more she strikes you surprised rather than aggressive.
  905. >Presently she eases her gun back into its holster, and a little bit of your adrenaline drains away. She reaches down for you then.
  906. >You retreat a little from her touch in spite of yourself, but she snatches you she hauls you back to where you’d been lying. A sort of couch, it seems, under a window you can’t quite see out of.
  907. >She deposits you as gently as she can, though you still wince a little.
  908. >She sits back again then too, this time letting her tail fold around to dangle out before her.
  909. >Leaning back in her chair, she calls out to the ceiling.
  910. >“Nivia?”
  911. >There’s a little bit of defeat, and perhaps embarrassment in her voice.
  912. >The screen materializes again, then bursts into a loose fog before refactoring itself into a figure sitting between them
  913. >Almost a regular fox, save exceptional size and a particularly large tail.
  914. >The apparition turns to you and approaches on dainty paws, pads hovering a few centimeters from the floor.
  915. > “I am Nivia,” it says, speaking with quick, easy precision.
  916. > “I’ve derived the English language from the media you brought us. I will speak for Kal’Rashe. I’m teaching her, but you know how organic brains are. I warned her to let me handle it, but she swore she was ready, and insisted on speaking with you herself. I apologize for her brashness, but she’s my friend. Give her a chance.”
  917. >You’re not sure why you’re supposed to trust a hologram more than the thing sitting across from you, but the English does help.
  918. >Nivia flashes out of existence and fades back in on the floor beside you.
  919. > “‘It’s just a gun’, she says. ‘She won’t hurt you; she didn’t mean to frighten you.’”
  920. >You can’t help being a little indignant.
  921. >“Then why the hell did she pull it out?”
  922. >You may be talking to Nivia, but you’re glaring at G7X, or Kal’Rashe or whatever. You might be crazy, but you can almost swear she looks a little hurt.
  923. > “She thought, since we were in a friendly setting, that you wouldn’t misinterpret the gesture. I warned her you might not see it the same way, but she thought it would be fine. She promised me she’d be careful, but she got a little ahead of herself. I promise I’ll lord that over her when it’s next useful to me.”
  924. >Nivia flashes a mischievous grin and evaporates again. Kal calls something after her. It’s nothing you would understand, but it sounds a little like sisterly bickering.
  925. >Then she turns back to you, setting her hand on her hip again, but going out of her way to make sure her eyes stay wide and gentle.
  926. >Fuck it, you’ve made it this far. Let’s see where this goes.
  927. >She draws the weapon very slowly, keeping her eyes locked with yours. She then pries a platter from the top that which you assume is a magazine, and works the action with her largest toe. She turns the breach to you. It’s empty.
  928. >You give her a nod and she sets it on the table between you.
  929. >With a blunted claw she indicates to one of the inscriptions, the lines of the characters a little clearer in the light from overhead. They look almost Chinese, though the lines of each meld into the next in a sort of cursive.
  930. > “Kal,” she reads, and then points to the next, “Rashe.”
  931. >She looks back to you for affirmation, though you think you can tell that she’d like you to forgive her while you’re at it.
  932. >You manage a little smile for her, and she seems to relax a little. With some effort you unshoulder your jacket and show her your name written under the tag.
  933. >“A-n-o-n. Anon.”
  934. >She nods, her face brightening again.
  935. >To your relief, the handgun goes back in its holster.
  936. >She looks back to you as if to ask a question, but she falters, and her eyes dim a little in disappointment.
  937. > “Niv?” she whimpers again, a little dejectedly.
  938. >The hologram is half way through an eye-roll when it fades back in. It glances over its shoulder to her and grumbles something, sounding a little annoyed.
  939. >Kal’Rashe replies with something, her voice admitting defeat.
  940. >Nivia turns to you again.
  941. > “Do you feel okay? How’s the pain?”
  942. >You hadn’t realized you’d been hoping one of them would ask that. It was a relief to hear.
  943. > “Leg isn’t too bad, but my chest feels awful. I can barely breathe.”
  944. >Nivia relates this back to Kal’Rashe, who seems to look a little worried. Then she turns back to you.
  945. > “That’s to be expected. Your lung collapsed. We took care of it. The nanobots are working on the damage; you’ll feel better in a day or so.
  946. >Did she just say fucking nanobots?
  947. >Suddenly you can feel them inside you.
  948. >Wiggling.
  949. >Tickling.
  950. >You want them out very, very much.
  951. >You cough, and then again despite the searing pain.
  952. >Kal glares at Nivia and sets a paw on your shoulder.
  953. > “U R OK,” she mouths.
  954. >Nivia seems to concede that it might not have been the best idea to tell you.
  955. > “Listen to Kal’Rashe, anon. Let them work. They won’t hurt you. You can have them out tomorrow.
  956. >That doesn’t make you feel much less violated, but you suppose you aren’t in a position to complain.
  957. >You can’t really feel the bots, right?
  958. >That’s your imagination, right?
  959. >Nivia seems to read your mind. Hell, maybe she can.
  960. > “No, you can’t feel them. Now how about Kali and I knock you out, and we can try this again when both of you are a little better prepared for it, okay?”
  961. >That sounds like a pretty good deal to you, but something stops you nodding.
  962. >What about Kim? What happened to him, is he okay?
  963. >You ask as much.
  964. > “Your friend in the forest? He ran the other way. He’s fine. He took your vehicle.”
  965. >You feel a little better, but something stops you again.
  966. > “He, uh, didn’t fuck it up, did he?”
  967. > “He did not attempt to breed with your vehicle. Is that common?”
  968. >You shake your head rapidly.
  969. > “No. I mean did he damage it?”
  970. > “No.”
  971. > “Alright, knock me the hell out.”
  972. >Nivia relates this to Kali, who nods and walks off.
  973. >When she returns, its with a small, white device between her thumb and index finger.
  974. >She eases you back down again and sets a paw on your shoulder.
  975. > “U R OK, Ahnon.”
  976. >She touches it to your arm. The warm feeling comes again, and then blackness.
  977.  
  978.  
  979. >Chapter 5, Contact
  980.  
  981. >The light’s different when you wake again.
  982. >It’s dimmer this time, and stained with a warm, honey shade that paints the walls the color of scotch whiskey.
  983. >Your head still aches, but most of the hungover feeling has gone, and with it the persistent daze that’s been making your thoughts feel as though they were being shouted at you from another room.
  984. >They ring pretty clearly now, confused, but not disoriented.
  985. >Your chest feels better too. You can take most of a breath without feeling like you’ve been hit by a tractor-trailer. You even manage to avoid yelping when you find the upper limit.
  986. >Maybe nanobots aren’t so bad, though you like the way ET does it better.
  987.  
  988. >You’re still on the couch, which you now realize isn’t quite long enough to accommodate you. You must have kicked the Symbiote off at some point, because it’s sitting in a rumpled pile on the floor.
  989. >The symbiote, or Kali’s blanket or whatever, is old and worn-looking, like her shirt. A variety of images and insignias scatter the fabric, each stitched earnest, well-meaning needlework.
  990. >A few of the icons you recognize as spacecraft, but most of them are lost to you.
  991. >It reminds you a little of the NASA sheets you had when you were nine.
  992. >Alien symbiote, huh?
  993. >Turns out confirmation bias is a hell of a drug.
  994. >In less comfy, optimistic news, the blanket on the floor means your fucked up leg is exposed.
  995. >That becomes the first item on your “things I’d really rather not look at” list, and you set right to avoiding it.
  996.  
  997. >It turns out you’d actually judged the room pretty well during your previous brush with consciousness, which is funny because now it seems more like a dream than anything else.
  998.  >It’s maybe a little bigger than a motor home cabin, and, while it looks like it was once rather sharp, is now furnished somewhat haphazardly. The decor is mostly neat, but gives you the impression that someone gave up about two-thirds of the way through cleaning it.
  999. >A metallic desk sits adjacent to the couch, its surface cluttered and finish dulled beneath a layer of dust.
  1000. >The table in front of you is scattered with notebooks, an electronic tablet, and a few print documents.
  1001. >One of the latter is rather conspicuously a copy of Popular Science from 1991, and is open to a page about the Space Shuttle.
  1002. >In the far corner sits a pair of chairs, both built with broad gaps at their bases which you presume are for tail-routing. They face inward as if around a TV, but close as you can tell there’s nothing there.
  1003. >In the near corner, a pile of what looks to be clothing has built up probably a bit taller than originally intended.
  1004. >The place certainly seems lived in, which you suppose makes perfect sense.
  1005. >Wander the galaxy for a while probing random creatures, and eventually you quit being so tidey.
  1006. >Like moving away to college, you figure.
  1007. >Only somehow it hadn’t been what you were expecting at all.
  1008. >Frankly, when you guessed the room was cluttered, you figured it was cluttered with, you don’t know, SINISTER things.
  1009. >You’re rather happy to have been wrong.
  1010. >Lived in or not, Kal’Rashe herself is nowhere to be seen.
  1011. >You’re pretty sure you’re glad that’s so, but it’s probably too early to call.
  1012. >There’s one thing you are sure of though:
  1013. >You could definitely stand to take a piss.
  1014. >This presents something of a problem, one you’re not particularly enthusiastic to pose to your host. Fortunately everything else has been more straightforward than you've expected. Any luck and this will be too. It's probably as simple as finding a bathroom; there must be one.
  1015. >Question is, is your leg up to the task?
  1016. >That means you have to look at it.
  1017. >You sigh with resignation.
  1018. >Not because they are easy...
  1019. >Oh come on, you don't need the mantra for this. You're not that much of a pussy.
  1020. >You haul yourself into a sitting position.
  1021. >Your left leg, it turns out, is actually the right way around now.
  1022. >The swelling is gone, and the only thing noticeable left is a sleek, skeletonized armature brace.
  1023. >It doesn't even feel weird.
  1024. >A good start, you figure. But how about weight?
  1025. >You set it on the floor.
  1026. >It's noticeable, but not agonizing.
  1027. >Okay, how about all the weight?
  1028. >You stand properly for the first time since the fall, feeling more than a little light headed. It definitely hurts. Actually, it hurts pretty fucking bad, but workably bad. You try a few paces, and then across the room and back.
  1029. >You grow confident in your new short, awkward stride, and look up from your feet and out the window.
  1030. >You can actually see out this time, and the view gives you pause.
  1031. >The snow is gone, and in its place an endless expanse of desert spills out before you, glowing a pale terracotta in the light of a setting sun.
  1032. >A faint, dusty haze hangs in the air, scattering the light until it’s the color of SunnyD.  
  1033. >It looks the way you imagine Mars would look in color.
  1034. >Actually, are you sure it isn’t?
  1035. >You definitely need to know. You’re not totally sure how this is supposed to work, but you look up at the ceiling.
  1036. > “Hey, uh, Nivia?”
  1037. >The hologram rains down on you in a flurry of blue droplets, gathering around your neck like a mink shawl. As you figured, she doesn’t feel like anything.
  1038. >This must be some good shit. No way you would get away with a command like that in Zork.
  1039.  
  1040. > “You’re looking better. Call me to freak out about nanobots some more?”
  1041. >You elect not to dignify her comment, turning instead to the window.
  1042. > “Where are we?”
  1043. >She flashes out and gathers again in the opposite direction, her gaze beside yours again.
  1044. > “12,327.43 of your ‘feet’ over the Mojave, 53.96 miles West of Las Vegas. We’re southbound now, circling the city with a modest ground speed of 251.35 knots. Kali and I are on the flight deck, having a spirited conversation about why it might be that English neglects gender-specific words while other latin languages include them. To tell you the truth, I’m getting pretty bored of it. Shall I fetch her?”
  1045. > “Wait, you’re on the flight deck?”
  1046. >Nivia rolls her eyes again and multiplies herself into a circular pattern around you.
  1047. > “Just how many conversations would you like to have anon?”
  1048. >Her voice echoes uniformly from every corner of the room.
  1049. >Once again, you’re not sure what you were expecting.
  1050. >Seeing you understand, she evaporates and reappears on your shoulder as a colorful parrot.
  1051. > “So should I get her, or no? I’m sure she’d like to speak with you. I haven’t gotten her fluent just yet, but she’s doing a lot better.”
  1052. > “She’s almost fluent? How long was I out?”
  1053. > “About 18 hours. How long does it take you to learn a language?”
  1054. >You neglect to answer that. You aren’t sure if the fetching Kali thing has a correct answer, but you get the impression that it doesn’t.
  1055. > “Could we wait on Kal’Rashe?”
  1056. > “I wouldn’t blame you.”
  1057. >She melts away.
  1058. > “Niv, wait,” you call after her, overcoming a little of your self consciousness.
  1059. >Her head manifests on the ceiling as if she were peering down through a hole in it.
  1060. > “Mhmm?”
  1061. >You’re not sure if she’s annoyed with you.
  1062. > “Uh, sorry to bother you, I guess, but--”
  1063. > “Please, by all means bother me. I listen to Kali yap all day.”
  1064. > “Do you guys, like, uh, urinate?”
  1065. >Christ, you can barely keep the spaghetti down just asking a computer where the bathroom is. You’re not sure you’re really up to this whole “ambassador for the human race” thing.
  1066. > “I don’t. Kali does. Second right down the hall. I’m sure it’s not quite what you’re used to, but you’ll figure it out.”
  1067. >She gestures down the hall and fades again.
  1068. >Seems legit, you figure, and set to shambling that way. She catches you one last time as you round the corner into the corridor.
  1069. > “Hey, do you mind if we record it? You know, for scientific purposes?”
  1070. >Once again you can’t tell if there’s a right answer. You don’t think you’d give it to her even if there was though.
  1071.  > “I’d REALLY rather you didn’t.”
  1072. >She nods dutifully.
  1073. > “We were more interested in how you’d react to the question itself anyway.”
  1074. >She’s gone as quickly as she came.
  1075.  
  1076. >You don’t have far to go; the corridors make you feel more like you’re on a 737 than the starship Enterprise. Between the chrome and wood accents they’re a bit nicer than that might imply, but you still find yourself thinning your profile and ducking the ceiling here and there.
  1077. >Nivia’s right about the bathroom. Nothing too exotic. Awkwardly positioned and proportioned, but workable. You suppose there’s room for the toilet to turn out to be the sink and vice versa, but you’re at least 90% sure you made the right call, and don’t care to dwell on it.
  1078. >There is a mirror there though, and if you’re stuck with this ambassador thing you think it might be worth trying to look at least a little less degenerate.
  1079. >There’s not much to work with, but you straighten your shirt out and manage to plaster your hair down a little with some strategic water placement. You fish around a little for something to deal with the bit of beard you’ve got coming in, but nothing presents itself. It’ll have to do. Kali hadn’t looked like much when you’d first met, right? Maybe this was like, the height of fashion for them? Probably too good to be true, but there’s nothing more you can really do about it anyway.
  1080. >You’ll make sure you’re dressed like a starfleet captain in the picture of you they print in the news articles and textbooks.
  1081. >Speaking of which, you should probably come up with something cool to say. Something original and insightful, to go on the plaques commemorating First Contact.
  1082. >Something not sperging about nanobots.
  1083. >You’ll have to give that some thought, but knowing you, it can’t be TOO MUCH thought.
  1084. >You’ll start heading that way and see what comes to you. You’ll come up with something, right?
  1085. >You duck back out into the corridor and start the opposite way, the deck  jostling a little beneath you in the thermals rising from the desert floor.
  1086.  
  1087. >Okay, so what are your options?
  1088. >Quote someone else. Maybe track 1 again. That would be modest and easy.
  1089. >But nobody would remember YOU for it. If you’re honest with yourself, you do kind of like the idea of having something with your name on it.
  1090. >You should probably still say whatever you’re going to say “on behalf of the people of Earth” though, so that’s somewhere to start.
  1091. >On behalf of the people of Earth..., you are, uh, honored to make her acquaintance. May our, or may we or something, find knowledge and--. No, you should say peace first. People like peace. ...may we find peace and knowledge in a common understanding--. No, no, too wordy. ...peace and knowledge in each other’s company as we turn to face the Universe together. Yeah. That’ll do. You can do this.
  1092. >You plaster your hair down again and duck into the flight deck.
  1093.  
  1094. >It’s smaller than you were expecting, and dense. The panel is broad and set forward under a set of bulkily-framed windows. It’s split down the middle by a center console that looks more complicated than the geopolitical situation in the Middle East, and crowned by an overhead so cluttered it’s not worth even trying to comprehend. Notes in various forms plaster the room like wallpaper. You’re pretty sure at least half of them are important.
  1095. >Ka’Rashe seems perfectly at home in all of it though.
  1096. >She’s fiddling very deliberately with a pair of dials on the overhead, tail wrapped around behind her and the black tips of her ears reaching just high enough to crest the back of the captain’s chair. For a second you don’t think she notices you, then something she’s watching satisfies her, and she spins to face you.
  1097. > “Anon!”
  1098. >She glances to Nivia, who’s occupying the right seat for what you suppose are symbolic purposes.
  1099. > “Your controls, Niv?”
  1100. > “I’ve got the vessel,” she chirps
  1101. >She gives you a look suggesting she’s wishing you luck, then evaporates. The controls go on manipulating themselves.
  1102. >Kal’Rashe rises to greet you, you swear looking a little taller than she used to. Must be the ears, you figure, though it doesn’t help that she looks to have showered and dressed herself up a bit this time.
  1103. >She’s wearing a sleek, gray jacket that looks like someone tried to make dinner-wear out of a lab coat by replacing the buttons and adding a chrome insignia to the lapel. Her collar hangs open by a few notches, revealing the folds of a black bandanna bundled underneath. A few constellations are stitched into its fabric with strands of thread as white as her fur, which looks quite a bit softer than it used to. The outfit, while it strikes you a bit odd, is tight in the right places. You do your absolute best not to think about that too much. It also manages to strike you a little intimidating, but the uncertain smirk on her face makes up for some of that. Something about it looks almost relieved, but maybe also a little disappointed. This is it, you suppose.
  1104. > “Evening anon, how do you feel?”
  1105. >Shit, that wasn’t what she was supposed to say. If she couldn’t have been something more foreign and less, uh, distracting, the least she could have done was stick to the imaginary script you had in your head for how the meeting of your species was supposed to go down.
  1106. >Your mind blanks so hard she might as well have given you that knock-out stuff again. You feel some part of you default, and proceed as if everything was going according to plan. You take a deep breath and brace yourself for your own idiocy.
  1107. > “On behalf of the Earth--
  1108. >Come on, you almost said “earth of people”. Keep it together bitch, you can do this.
  1109. > “I’m honored to make your...
  1110. >SHIT! What was the word? It started with “A”. How the hell don’t you remember? What kind of an idiot are you? Fuck it, improvise!
  1111. > “...uh, honored to meet you. May our find knowledge and common...”
  1112. >Oh Jesus Christ, you should quit before this gets any worse.
  1113. >Shit she's pretty. Just like you thought on the radio. That isn’t fucking helping.
  1114. > “Pretty? Wow, thanks! I was uh,” her voice softens, “I figured you probably didn't like me very much after all that, what with the abduction and the needle and all. It wasn't supposed to go like that; I screwed up pretty bad.”
  1115. > She seems legitimately regretful, but you don't have time to dwell on that, because HOLY SHIT, you'd said that OUT LOUD? You were even worse than you thought! At this rate you were going to doom your species to interstellar warfare. What did she mean SHE screwed up?
  1116. >For lack of a reply, she keeps talking. Her voice is a little hesitant at first, but it comes back to her.
  1117. > “We thought you'd probably hide out, and we'd just leave you alone. Turn you loose again once you were healthy enough. I guess humans might be braver than we thought, or maybe just you are.
  1118. >Okay, that felt pretty good.
  1119. > “It wasn't that bad,” you lie.
  1120. > “Our meeting was supposed to be equitable! Now the experiment’s contaminated.”
  1121. >That didn't feel as good.
  1122. > “Experiment?”
  1123. > “Sorry,” she sighs, refactoring her uniform again, “the idea was to be straight with you from the start, but that got complicated. I was going to bring you on board, and we were going to talk a bit. I even made dinner. I thought I had it planned so well...,”
  1124. >She looks at you a little sheepishly. You nod to her.
  1125. > “I'm an anthropologist,” she admits, “We know all about you biomedically, but very little research has been conducted first hand on the behavior of humans when not under duress. You weren't SUPPOSED to be under duress. That was the idea. 'Til I fucked it up, at least.”
  1126. >If it weren’t for the gravity of the situation, you wouldn’t all that under duress. You tell her as much.
  1127. >She waves you off dismissively.
  1128. > “This isn’t first contact. The first verbal exchange between our species occurred about nine months ago by way of one of your digital communication protocols. Your species’ first words to us, your Golden Record aside, were ‘Fuck off Moon Coons, we’re full. You can crash on Mars if you want.’ That’s what’s printed in our textbooks.”
  1129. >Somehow that sounds about right to you. You’re not sure if you should apologize for it.
  1130. >You can’t help feeling a little disappointed by that revelation, which she seems to notice.
  1131. > “If our meeting winds up being the first public acknowledgement for your people, we can sit down and come up with something to claim you said. I won’t tell them you freaked out about nanobots.”
  1132. >She smiles that half-smile again. Something about it puts you at ease more than her words could.
  1133. >You’re not sure if it’s just an experiment she’s disappointed about, but you can’t shake the feeling there’s more to it.
  1134. >Since you’re here, maybe you could at least give her that interview she wanted.
  1135. >Her eyes light up when you offer.
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