Earth learns real fast that aliens exist when an extraterrestrial battle erupts overhead. Exotic debris rains down across the planet, causing massive damage and paralyzing governments at a national and local levels.
Just like in the town of Vail. A rotten stink chokes the town from a crashed alien ship. Chris Dart volunteers for the cleanup crew. Get in, take care of the mess, and get out.
Simple plan, for an otherworldly problem.
The stink made sleep impossible. Chris tried pinching his nose. Somehow that didn’t matter. The smell of rot clung to the back of his throat. His eyes watered and stung.
The red lights on the clock showed 3:08.
He turned his head.
Lynn’s breath came in short even puffs of air. If he was going to be awake maybe he could do something about the smell. The thought motivated him to throw the covers back.
As his eyes adjusted he could see a bit of the bedroom thanks to the moonlight coming through the window. The power was still out so there weren’t any street lights on. The dresser was a dark shape on his side of the bed next to the window. He got out of bed. The air felt cool on his bare legs and arms but the wood floor felt warm against his feet.
From the top drawer of the dresser he pulled out an white undershirt and dark underwear. He couldn’t see the color. He got blue jeans and a light-colored shirt from the closet. He dressed in the dark. Last of all he picked up his key ring with the mini-mag light, careful not to clink them too much and disturb Lynn. He left the bedroom and shut the door quietly.
He tiptoed past the bedroom to his son’s room. He stood in the doorway and listened. It took a moment but then he heard Paul’s soft breathing. How the two of them could sleep with this stink hanging in the air he didn’t know. Pain spiked in his head from the persistent smell of rot. He had to do something.
It couldn’t be healthy to have that smell all over town. He was glad that the City Council had finally decided to take action to address the problem but that wouldn’t come soon enough.
He needed to protect his family.
It took him a few minutes to get together everything that he needed. The vinyl drop clothes they’d gotten for painting were stashed in the back closet by the washing machine. He found the duct tape in a bottom drawer in the kitchen. Why it was there he couldn’t say. Lynn would have known right where it was, had she been awake.
The scissors he didn’t have any trouble finding. Chris started in the living room since it had the most windows. He tried breathing through his mouth as he worked.
First the curtains had to come down. Lynn had made them in just a couple days out of old scraps of cloth stitched together like a patchwork quilt. She’d only used remnants for the project and the result had been an explosion of color. She’d even done it so that the colors made a sort of rainbow with purple at the bottom blending into blue, green, yellow all the way up to orange and red at the top. Since it as all remnant pieces none of the shades were exactly the same and although she’d curved it into a sort of an arc the lines weren’t smooth since she hadn’t cut the pieces to fit a sharp line. That made it brilliant in his book.
But they had to come down.
He folded the curtain after he took it off the rod and set it aside on the arm of the couch.
Opening the curtain let him look out on Sussex. The blackened timbers of the Dave’s Hardware stood still stood across the intersection on the other side of Sussex and 4th. A piece of the debris had landed right on the building. All that lumber, paint and solvents went up in flames. Old Jas had been in the store of course. He hoped she didn’t suffer.
Lots of people weren’t so lucky. Just like this stink from that blasted thing up in the quarry pool. His gut clenched at the thought but he had been the one that volunteered last night at the Council meeting to help out with that. He’d be meeting Jeff and some other guys later up in the quarry park to scope out the situation.
Chris stuck a piece of duct tape up on the wood framing. If he kept it to the wood at least he wouldn’t be peeling any paint off the wall. He lifted the vinyl sheet up by the corner and used the piece of tape to tack that corner up. He spread it out smooth against the frame and used another piece to tack up the top at the opposite corner. Then he used the scissors to cut the vinyl. When he finished he planned to tape it all the way around the window to seal out that odor until it got cleaned up.
“What are you doing?”
He let go. The tape peeled and the vinyl sheet slid down the wall to a heap on the floor. He turned around. Lynn stood in the entry to the room. She had on her worn brown terry cloth robe that she always wore in the morning. Her sandy blond curls stuck out every way imaginable. She hugged herself as if her thin body might fade away.
Chris went to her and pressed a kiss into her forehead. He breathed in deeply in the hope that her scent would drive out the reek of rot but it didn’t work. That made him mad. It was one more thing that the Eetees had taken away from him.
“Good morning. Couldn’t sleep?”
“I heard noises.” Lynn walked past him, her pink bunny slippers shuffling on the hardwood floor. “Why are you taking down my curtains? Are you painting?”
“I’m trying to block out that stink. Sorry I woke you.”
Lynn waved a hand at him. “But what are you doing with all that?”
“Taping the sheets over the windows.”
She patted his arm. “Chris, if you do that you’ll shut out our air. That’s the only way you’re going to stop the smell but I think we need to breathe.”
Chris conceded that she had a point there. She looked really tired. Her eyelids drooped. Her jaw popped as she yawned. Her hand came up at the last second to cover the yawn. He ran his hands down her shoulders feeling the collar bones beneath the surface of the terry cloth.
“Go back to bed. Paul isn’t even up yet. I’ll wake you if he gets up.”
“After you change his diaper.”
“After.” He pulled her into a hug for a second then released her. “Get to bed.”
Lynn nodded as she turned and shuffled away leaving him alone in their house. Right then the smell of decay hit. His throat convulsed into an involuntary gag. He sucked in air and blew it out. His stomach heaved. He swallowed walked quickly into the bathroom between the two bedrooms.
The bathroom was the worst feature of the house. Most houses had closets bigger than their bathroom. The floor was white tile. The whiles had been painted generic white as well. Stepping into the bathroom was like disappearing into white void. It had a stand-up shower with no tub. The toilet had been squeezed into a small space on the other side of the shower. With the sink sticking out of the wall across the shower it only left a small aisle. He shuffled between the shower and sink and then reached back to shove the door closed.
He stood above the toilet. He didn’t want to get down on the floor. He’d have to hug the toilet to do it because there was hardly any room to move. Chris inhaled through his mouth trying not to smell the rot anymore. He caught a faint whiff of the bleach that Lynn had used to clean the bathroom and that helped. His stomach started settling down. He turned to the sink and leaned forward a few inches.
Yes, he could smell the bleach better at the sink. It gave him something else to focus on. After a few more deep breaths he felt better. He looked up and saw himself in the mirror.
He had dark circles under his eyes. Ever since the sky fell he hadn’t been able to sleep. He kept getting up at night to check the house. To check on Paul. No matter how many times he’d checked on things he kept doing the rounds once more. Chris reached up and rubbed his short black beard, streaked now with white. Somehow he doubted that things ever could be the same again.
Jeff Martin held onto the truck’s steering wheel with his right while the other tapped along on his leg to CCR’s Down on the Corner. It was the big green City truck that he was driving, a F-350. Mayor Jacobs wanted him out at the quarry pool to check the barricades. The gas mask he wore pressed into the sides of his face and tasted of rubber and dust but it did cut out the stink from the alien thing.
He’d need that the closer he got. Fine by him. He’d wanted to get permission to come up here since the ship or whatever it was came down. He’d been out on his own scouring the trails around the park for debris since this all started but so far all he’d found was a few blackened bits of metal blobs that looked like Play Doh but felt as heavy as gold. The metal might be valuable but he couldn’t do anything until he got it analyzed and the stuff was scattered all over. His instincts told him he wouldn’t see anything out of the blobs other than as paperweights.
But the wreck in the quarry pool, that wasn’t a blob of melted metal. There was something rotten inside. Whatever Eetees had been in the thing it didn’t smell like they’d made it down in one piece. Still, if they stayed intact enough to rot and stink up the town it suggested to him that there might be technology inside that could be used. And he wanted to be the first inside.
This morning he’d get his chance. Everyone was at home licking their wounds for the most part. He drove past the rubble of the Ace Hardware store and that wasn’t the only building in town to get hit by debris. They’d actually gotten off lucky as far as that went except for the poor souls down in the trailer park.
He noticed Bank of America hadn’t opened. The windows were all dark but the sandstone block walls appeared undamaged. He didn’t see any signs that the pitched roof had been hit either. Across the street the old sandstone Vail Merchant Bank building still stood as it had for the past fifty years but now one whole wall had been smashed in by falling debris. Thinking about it, this would be a good time to get into construction. Vail had been lucky but according to the radio broadcasts many of the larger cities were having lots of problems. Lots of buildings destroyed. Services out. Plus all those scared people.
Yep, except for the smell and smoke rising in a few places Vail got off lucky. Well, for the most part. Behind Bank of America the library had been reduced to rubble strewn over a crater. Charred books lay in heaps all over the parking lot. Some had been thrown out into the road. He drove over them.
At least the trees hadn’t burned in the park. The Douglas fir and cedars still covered the ridge line. The soccer field needed work. It’d be hard to play the game around the craters. Some weren’t any bigger than a gopher hole but he could see it all clearly in the short grass. It looked like someone had taken a shotgun blast to the field. A lot of the debris must have been small.
Jeff parked and swung down out of the truck. He checked his mask then went around to the back of the truck for the gear. He’d put everything he could think of into a large canvas duffel. He slung it over his shoulder and went around the truck towards the quarry.
“Oh Holy Shit,” he said. The gas
Forget the tall trees that had shaded the quarry pool. They were just gone. Probably blasted into kindling and then burned to ash. Likewise the old Depot museum. No sign of it. Most of the Douglas fir up on the ridge lay knocked to the ground. The trunks of those closet the quarry looked scorched. The crater started almost at the road and the ground all around was heaved up and cracked.
But it was the wreck that held his attention. It was cigar-shaped and the end sticking up into the air was a good hundred feet off the ground. It looked fat and wrinkled like the impact had crumpled it but the wrinkles were too regularly spaced. It was a dull black graphite in color. If there were any windows he didn’t see any or any way inside.
Except it had to have an opening or it wouldn’t be producing such a stink. He’d smelled it this morning on the wind and he lived out of town but it felt like he’d collected all the day’s road kill possums and raccoons, put them in the cab of the truck, and then left the truck out in the sun. Fortunately he had the gas mask. After a few minutes of wearing it he didn’t smell the rot anymore. It had its own rubber musty odor but that was a thousand times better. Plus it made him sound like Darth Vader.
Jeff headed over towards the crater.
The ground here used to be flat. Now he had to climb a hill. It was bigger than it had looked. Long splits in the ground radiated out from the crater wall. He stayed away from those. Hopefully this wouldn’t prove to be radioactive or anything. Technically he was on the job. If Labor and Industries still existed after the fallout he could probably file a claim for any health problems. How could they show that any condition hadn’t been caused by the ship? The Mayor did send him out.
He reached the barricades which weren’t anything but a couple saw horses with caution tape between them. It wasn’t like they could block off the whole crater. He walked around them, stepping over any cracks, and kept climbing. The crater wall got steeper. The ground started shifting under his feet with each step. It wasn’t all that solid. He picked his footing more carefully, testing each step before he committed his weight to it. Even if L&I would take a worker’s comp claim he didn’t want a broken leg.
Jeff reached the top of the crater. He dropped the duffel bag beside himself.
Down slope he saw the crumpled-looking side of the ship disappearing into a large black pool. Rainbow colors floated on the water. He thought that must be oil on the water. He didn’t see any sign of the Depot Museum but there must have been cars there. The whole thing had been turned into one giant crater.
Getting into that thing was going to be tough on this side. The smell had to be coming from here so that only made sense if there was a way for the vapors to get out.
Jeff decided that he just wasn’t seeing it. There had to be a way in. He studied the pool around the ship. Most of the water had to have come from the quarry pool. The crater ran smack into the sandstone cliff at the back of the quarry. It’d be deep and cold with who-knew-what underneath that dark surface.
The smell might not be the only thing leaking out of the ship. That oily sheen might not come from cars destroyed by the crash. At least from this side he would need a boat to get anywhere close to the ship.
That left scouting around the ship. He picked up the duffel and went clockwise which would take him back towards the quarry. Far above his head the ship stretched up like an extreme version of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Even if it didn’t look much like the tower.
With each step dirt and rock cascaded down the slope into the crater. Not only dirt. There was plenty of charcoal mixed in. There were also little nodules in the dirt that caught the light with a dull gleam.
Jeff bent and picked one up. He turned it in his fingers. It felt like rough glass with sand mixed up in the glass. That must be what it was. What else could it be?
He tossed the piece down. The ship came in hot. It was the first night.
“Michael-fucking-Bay.” Jeff cheered and shook his hand over his head. “There it is!”
It had taken him longer than he’d planned to make his way around the crater. Not only was it tough to walk on the crater rim but when he got back towards the quarry he’d had to retrace his steps to get around the other way. Only other option would have been climbing up the ridge up around the top of the quarry and then come down on the other side. No way in Hell he was doing that.
It’d taken time but now he’d gotten around to the other side of the ship and he’d found the way in. The skin of the ship had been split open. In the impact or the battle it didn’t matter. What mattered it was a way in.
Although it looked pretty gross. It started above the water line and continued beneath it. The part he could see had to be about ten feet long and four feet wide at the widest part. White foamy filled a lot of the crack. It looked like the stuff the spit bugs put on the grass. It had dripped out of the crack into the water where clumps of the crap floated.
He still needed to get a boat of some sort. If they didn’t get in there now it’d only be a question of time before the feds showed up and took the whole thing away. Like Roswell.
Oh, boy this was going to blow a lot of that shit out of the water. He reached up to scratch his nose and hit the gas mask. Right.
He tried wrinkling his nose but that didn’t help.
He turned around. Three men were climbing up the crater wall towards him. Chris Dart in the lead. On the drive out here Jeff had thought he could get in and out before these guys showed up.
But it’d be cool. Once they got busy inside he’d have plenty of opportunities to snag some good loot. He didn’t kid himself that these guys wouldn’t do the same thing if they got the chance.
“Hey there.” He peeled the gas mask off. No way he was only wearing it. But then the smell hit him and bile rose into his throat. He swallowed. “Oh, that’s rank.”
Chris got up to the top of the crater rim and stared the ship. The other guys did the same thing. Scott, Jeff knew was good guy. Not the tallest dude but Jeff had seen him working out with the weights. Scott could bench twice his own body weight and do reps with it. He didn’t looked phased at all by the ship. He exchanged a nod with Jeff.
“Do we need those?” Chris asked, gesturing at the gas mask in Jeff’s hand.
“No. It’s safe enough. Just the stink.” He put it down on his duffle.
The other man he didn’t know at all. A soft-looking guy with dark hair and a bit of an Asian thing about him. Probably second or third generation, Jeff figured. That was fine. He didn’t give a rat’s ass as long as the man didn’t get in his way.
Jeff put on his biggest smile and stuck his hand out. “Jeff. I saw you at the meeting, sorry, don’t remember your name.”
That’s right. He’d had a girl’s name. His handshake felt like squeezing a loaf of white bread. Useless, Jeff decided. But that didn’t matter so long as Robin stayed out of the way.
“We’re going to need a boat to get over there,” Chris said.
Jeff felt a flash of irritation. If Chris thought he could come in and take over he’d be in for a surprise. “That’s right. I’ve already scouted the other sides. That crack is the only way.”
Scott shook his head. “Nope.”
“Nope. I ain’t gonna go in there.”
Robin licked his lips. “I’ll do it.”
That surprised the hell out of him. He’d expected Scott to be the guy to help him out. Chris, he didn’t trust Chris. He was one of those self-righteous guys that thought a college degree made all the difference. He’d gone to college. So he hadn’t bothered to finish. It’s not like he couldn’t have if he’d wanted but he had other plans.
“Any of you have an inflatable boat, canoe, anything like that?”
Heads shook all around.
“Damn it,” Jeff said.
Chris felt like he was walking through a dream when he said, “Why don’t we just swim?”
Jeff’s eyes widened. He was a thin wiry sort of guy that always seemed a bit on edge. Like he’d stuck his finger in a light socket and it had charged him up or something. Chris didn’t know him well but had seen him around since they’d moved to town. Usually at the City Council meetings or just as Jeff was doing odd jobs around town.
“We can swim.” Chris stepped over the edge of the crater.
Jeff grabbed his arm. The guy had a grip. Chris glanced at Jeff’s hand.
“Is there a problem?”
“So you swim over there, what then?”
Chris laughed. He regretted it when Jeff’s face reddened. Okay, not the guy to laugh at. “Sorry. I just meant that it’s an alien ship! The Eetees are here and we have a chance to see inside one of their ships.”
“Imagine how bad it smells in there,” Scott said. “You guys are crazy if you’re going in there.”
“Maybe we should wait,” Robin said.
Chris shook his head. He pulled free. “I’m not waiting. I want to get in there and take care of whatever is causing this stink. Maybe then we can start to figure out how all this worked. Hopefully before the Eetees come back.”
“You’re going to swim back and forth to drag out whatever rotten mess is inside causing this stink?” Jeff asked.
“No. We can get some back hoes or earth movers up here to push some of this dirt and rock into the water. We can build something like a dike out to the opening. But that’ll take time and we need to know what’s going on inside.”
Jeff chewed on his lip. Chris waited. Finally Jeff nodded. “Okay. You’ve got a point. We’ll do that. You and me. We swim out and scout out the place.” He turned to the other guys. “Why don’t the two of you go talk to the Mayor. See if he can get some equipment out here and someone to drive it. Shouldn’t take too long to make something workable. If the ship is going to stay we can always build something better later.”
Chris started skidding down the crater wall. Dirt and melted bits of sand tumbled down ahead of him in mini avalanches that plunked into the water. His arms wind-milled and he almost thought he wouldn’t be able to stop his downward plunge. He managed to stop a couple feet up from the water.
This close his eyes watered. His tongue felt swollen in his mouth from the stink of the place. It had been bad before he came into the crater. Now the odors gained a septic layer. He regretted his suggestion.
A hand slapped his back. His heart raced as he wobbled and nearly lost his footing. Jim laughed.
“Funny,” Chris said. “You’re a funny guy.”
“Come on. Let’s go in over there. It looks like that’s the shortest point.”
Chris followed Jeff’s arm. The land stuck out into the water a bit more at that point like a road sign to the crack in the ship. Jeff slung his duffel bag over his shoulder and walked down the shore. Chris breathed through his mouth and followed.
On the shore Jeff waded right in still carrying the duffel bag. Chris gave him points for that. He didn’t like the man but you couldn’t say that he was afraid. The water rose up to Jeff’s knee and then stopped.
“It’s hot. Come on in. Sooner we’re done with this the better, you know?”
Chris considered taking off his shoes but only for a second. He hated to ruin a good pair and after getting soaked in this mess he planned to burn all of his clothing. Looking at the scum and oily sheen to the water he realized he didn’t know what hazards the water hid. He took out his wallet and set it on the ground away from the water. He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket. He didn’t want to risk the phone getting submerged so he left it with his wallet. He kept his mini-mag light key ring.
He stepped in. He expected cold despite what Jeff said. It did feel hot. Just like stepping into a hot bath. The bottom didn’t suck at his shoes. It remained reasonably firm as he walked out. Almost slippery.
Jeff chuckled then turned and waded towards the ship. The water rose higher on him but he reached the white foam without the water rising above mid-thigh. Chris watched him poke it.
He didn’t scream. In fact he stuck his whole hand into a glob of the stuff.
Chris watched his face for a reaction. Jeff wrinkled his nose then shook his hand. Foam splattered on the surface.
“Don’t know what it is,” Jeff said. “Seems harmless.”
Jeff shoved through the foam. He scooped it out of the way with his arms and dumped it on the water. The foam had the consistency of shaving cream from what Chris could see. He followed in Jeff’s trail. The closer they got to the ship the higher the water rose.
“Fuck.” Jeff flicked his arms. “How much of this shit is there?”
Jeff stood right by the ship now but Chris saw the problem. For each armload of foam that Jeff shoveled out of his way more oozed out of the ship. Chris picked his way over to stand on Jeff’s right. He shoved the foam aside. It spread out across the water. It felt like shaving cream but after a little while his skin started to itch.
“Is your skin itching?”
“Fuck yeah. So?”
“Maybe this stuff isn’t safe?”
“Screw playing it safe. We are past playing it safe. I want to get in there and have a look around before the feds or anyone else shows up.”
If anything happened to him it’d leave Lynn and Paul alone in a world just devastated by the Eetee battle. But he’d promised to help out with this. It was important.
“Don’t tell my wife I didn’t go back.”
Jeff glanced at him. His blue eyes narrowed. “You got a wife?”
“Yes. And a son.”
Jeff shook his head. “You can go back any time bud. I don’t have anyone. I can go in and look around on my own.”
It was tempting. But the fact that Jeff offered only made Chris more determined. He had to see what was inside the Eetee ship.
Jeff ground his teeth. Dr. Kroger kept telling him that he shouldn’t grind his teeth but he couldn’t help it sometimes. Mostly when he dealt with idiots like Dart. The guy had some sort of hero complex. Just the sort of thing that could get a guy killed. You had to look out for yourself. Jeff’s father beat that lesson into him at a young age with the business end of a belt.
As far as the wife and kid. Too bad. Dad’s stupid and dead. So sad. He didn’t know Chris’s wife. That might change too.
Except the fucking foam kept coming out of the ship. He pushed another arm-load away. “This reminds me of flat fix.”
Chris pushed foam away on the other side. “Flat fix?”
“Yeah. Stuff comes in a can? You put it in the tire. Supposed to patch any holes.”
“So this one time fishing with my brother our pickup got a flat. We didn’t see it until we went to leave. No spare. But we had this flat fix. Used that stuff to get some air in the tire and got out of there. Had to stop because the stuff kept coming out of the tire. We bought some more to get the truck home.”
“That’s a really good idea. Maybe they used it for the same reason, to keep the air in their ship. This hole was just too big.”
Pompous prick. Jeff ground his teeth more. “Screw this. I’m close enough to grab the edge.”
He thrashed closer and just as his fingers brushed the edge of the opening is feet slipped on the bottom. Down he went. Hot water rushed up his chest. Foam closed in and he closed his mouth. Water covered his head. He kept his eyes shut tight. Hell if he wanted any of that crap in his eyes. He tried to get his feet under him but his shoes slipped on the bottom. It felt like trying to walk on wet ice. He had no traction.
A hand grabbed the back of his shirt. Had to be Chris. Jeff resisted. He didn’t need any god damn help! He came up sputtering and spitting water that got in despite his efforts. Chris looked at him all big eyes. Faking his concern, of course. Jeff knew it. He shoved Chris.
“Get the fuck off me!”
Chris stumbled but the prick couldn’t even fall down properly. Instead he spread his hands out to his sides. “Just trying to help.”
“I didn’t need your help.” Jeff ran his hands over his head to squeeze out the water. “I want your help the day hell freezes over. Got it?”
Chris lowered his hands. “Fine. If that’s how you want it.”
Jeff ground his teeth. God damn superior prick. Wait tell we get inside, buddy. Then you’ll see how I want it.
Chris waited until Jeff disappeared into the ship before he walked up to the crack himself. After Jeff’s explosion giving the guy space sounded like a good idea.
He didn’t hold it against Jeff. Times like this people freaked out. He felt it too.
Although he didn’t think he would ever lash out like that at someone trying to help.
Chris grabbed the edges of the alien ship and shivered. It felt cool and wet beneath his fingers. The ship’s skin looked like metal the color of graphite. From the distance the skin appeared smooth except for the undulating wrinkles that gave it a squashed look. He still couldn’t decide if the impact caused the wrinkles or if the ship normally looked like that. Now he saw that the skin held a texture. At first he thought that small bumps no bigger than the head of a pin covered the skin. Looking closer he saw a woven pattern. A woven metal? He ran his finger along the edge at the break and felt tiny prickles from each thread.
Amazing. It disappointed him that the Eetees fought wars. It saddened him that so many intelligent beings died. For what? Why? He remembered the two types of ship in the video. Did that mean two different Eetees or did the shape of the ships not matter? For all he knew there could have been cigar-shaped ships and spherical ships on both sides.
He sniffed and suddenly the smell hit him again. He gagged. He leaned on the ship and gagged for a second. His eyes watered. He’d been so focused he’d blocked it out.
A charnel house. This ship flew who-knew-how-many light years only to end up a carnal house in this quarry. He wished this had happened differently but they could give the Eetees a burial.
“Jeff?” He listened. Nothing from the ship. He’d better get inside.
Holding onto the sides he pulled himself up out of the water into the foam. He braced himself on a bent piece of the skin. The light didn’t penetrate far. He waited for his eyes to adjust to the gloom.
The foam bled out of the skin. Layers made the skin. All along the tear the foam bled out. Flat fix. It made sense. Zipping around space the ship hits a micrometeorite. Most probably didn’t penetrate the skin. Those with more energy might penetrate and the foam probably absorbed the kinetic energy as well as acting as a sealant to plug the hole. Good strategy so long as nothing ripped a big hole in the ship.
Chris scratched at his hands. The itching hadn’t gotten worse. It also hadn’t gone away. He stopped himself. The foam irritated his skin about as much as handling fiberglass. He ignored it.
Now that his eyes had adjusted he could see deeper into the ship. No flat surfaces thanks to the angle of the ship. Even so the tear had opened up onto a large room. The light didn’t penetrate only let him see a small patch of floor, at an angle, right in front of him. But between him standing there and the foam around him not much light got through. He didn’t see any sign of Jeff.
Chris took a step into the room. The floor felt flat and level beneath his feet. He looked back at the tear. Through the small opening above the foam he saw trees past those knocked down by the impact. From his perspective they looked tipped at an angle. Except he knew it wasn’t the trees. The alien ship had come in at an angle. But when he looked down now, as far as he could tell, he stood on a flat floor.
That chilled him. He rubbed his arms. Water dripped onto the floor. He had the crazy thought that he should find a towel and mop up the mess he’d created.
No answer. Chris worried about Jeff and that annoyed him. He didn’t want to worry about Jeff. He wanted to explore the ship but the air tasted thick and foul. His headache got worse. It felt like icepicks in his brain. He rubbed the side of his head. He blinked and tried to ignore the smell. He couldn’t, not really. Just like when Paul cried. Lynn could let Paul cry for a little while. Never so much that it really even upset Paul but she could tolerate his cry. Chris couldn’t shut it out. He felt sickened by the smell of Eetees rotting.
And the longer they sat here in the ship then the longer everyone had to keep breathing it. He needed to find the source and do something about it. Then maybe he’d get some peace.
“Jeff? Where are you?”
No answer. No sounds. He took a step and noticed a heaviness when he lifted his leg. It felt he wore heavy steel soled boots. The ship had artificial gravity. He didn’t have any idea how that could work but it started as soon as he stepped inside. The fact that he hadn’t felt it until then suggested that the field was contained to the inside of the ship. He knew enough to figure that this one detail changed the whole picture of physics. If gravity could be shaped and controlled like this then that might explain how the ships flew.
So why had this ship crashed? From what he saw whatever had ripped open the side of the ship hadn’t penetrated deep. The fact that the gravity still worked made him wonder how much of the ship still functioned?
Chris dug into his pocket and pulled out his mini-mag light. Hopefully being submerged He twisted the end and bright LED light shone out into the room.
His gut clenched at what he saw. He had expected it. The smell had to come from somewhere.
The light didn’t reach the other side of the room. He stood at the edge of a large round room. At least from this side it looked like the room took up the whole interior of the cigar-ship like a whole floor in a sky-scraper with the dividing walls taken out. At the edge of the light, towards the center of the room, he saw a curved wall that rose from the floor to the ceiling some sixteen feet above.
He didn’t see anything that looked like furniture. No cubicles. No chairs, couches, tables or desks. No computers, monitors or equipment. With one exception the entire floor contained nothing. The interior walls, floor and ceiling looked like the same woven black material used for the exterior skin.
No sign of Jeff.
But he had found the source of the smell. Bodies littered the floor. Dozens of cigar-shaped yellow segmented bodies lay in piled heaps. The area right around the tear remained clear, maybe because any Eetees close to it when it happened had been blown out into space. That still left the floor covered. And the ceiling. His head spun looking up at them but the Eetees covered the ceiling as thickly as the floor. Chris walked with heavy steps over to the closest body and played his flashlight along its length.
Superficially it resembled a six-foot long sunshine yellow caterpillar. In the grove between each segment the color flared to orange. The skin looked hairless and smooth. He couldn’t figure if it had a head or not. Both ends narrowed but was the head the end with the clusters of black river-pebbles embedded in the skin or the end with the cluster of bright red tentacles that lay limp and lifeless? That probably be for some scientist to figure out.
Was this a person? A scientist or a soldier? Looking at it his gut told him animal. The caterpillars could have been a food source for the crew except for two other details. Each segment had two limbs. He could see that much. Short limbs but meaty, and each ended in a hand. Not a human hand, but that made no difference. He still recognized it as a hand. Four fingers and two thumbs on each hand. Eight limbs and eight hands on each side. Plus it wore three metallic blue rings strapped to the top of each of the middle segments.
He couldn’t tell what had killed it. He didn’t see any obvious wounds. Fluid that looked like antifreeze had leaked out of the studded with the black river-pebbles. Blood? No telling.
Chris aimed his flash light at the ceiling. Bodies covered it just like the floor. He might have thought the ceiling simply mirrored the floor but if so it didn’t reflect him. He reached up towards the ceiling. At his full extension he felt weight tugging his hand up. That wasn’t a ceiling above but another floor with gravity going in the opposite direction.
He heard a faint crack like a gun shot. Then another. Jeff? It came from somewhere deeper in the ship.
After he got into the ship he’d taken out his big flashlight and immediate tried to get as far from the tear as he could. He didn’t want to be standing around when Chris got inside. That’d be like standing around the entrance to the store when you’d won a shopping spree. No, you got in, moved fast and picked the high-value items. In the best case you made the suckers bleed.
The tumbled fat bodies reminded him of so many maggots in a corpse. He had picked his way among them to the center of the room. There he had discovered the central shaft connecting the different levels. He had to get down on his hands and knees to look inside. It pissed him off at first. He hadn’t brought climbing gear and the shaft dropped off down below deeper than he’d expected. The ship must really have stuck into the ground. It went even farther the other direction. If the flashlight hadn’t slipped in his wet fingers he might not have realized the secret.
But the flashlight did slip because of the damn itching foam. Only the flashlight didn’t fall. It tumbled away from his hand but hung in the air as it spun across the shaft. He’d seen movies. He knew weightlessness when he saw it. It made sense. When the caterpillars wanted to go to a different level they floated along then crawled out, floor or ceiling, it didn’t make a difference.
He had looked back at that point and saw Chris pushing through the foam. He launched himself out into the shaft after the flashlight. He caught it then caught the opening on the other side to steady himself.
Jeff laughed quietly. This place could be fun once they got the bugs out. He shoved off and floated across the shaft to the other side. He reached out and dragged his duffel into the shaft with him.
Up or down? He chose down.
Easy as pie to push off the opening and drift down to the next opening. He didn’t have far to go. The next level looked the same as the one above. A floor and ceiling filled with dead caterpillars. Jeff pushed off down to the next level.
He whistled when he looked inside. Long raised troughs covered the ceiling and floor below. Each rose a couple feet from the floor and looked to be about three feet across. The troughs made rings around the central core. It looked like one of those corn mazes. Large dead caterpillars lay in the aisles around the troughs.
“That’s fucking gross.” It didn’t matter. He had to take a closer look.
Jeff shoved the duffel bag out onto what would have been the ceiling for the floor below. It stayed put. He kept his eyes on the bag but it felt like he had turned upside down. He pulled himself out of the shaft onto the floor right into the fluid that had leaked from a nearby caterpillar.
“Ugh.” He crawled out and stood up.
He felt okay. It didn’t feel like standing upside down. He picked up the duffel and walked over to the nearest trough. Chunks of dark blue meat and thick dark green fluid filled the trough. Mixed all throughout wriggled little caterpillars. Not all the fucking Eetees had died. They varied in length from only a few inches up to a foot.
“Fucking gross.” He crouched and unzipped his duffel and pulled out his Glock 17. Leaning into the trough he poked one of the a little six-inch caterpillars with the pistol.
Both ends of the caterpillar reared up out of the muck and turned towards him. It made small spitting sounds.
“Yeah, you’re an ugly fuck, you know that?”
But he could get good money for a living Eetee. He didn’t see any teeth but those red tendrils and the one end worried him. He reached in and grabbed the caterpillar. It thrashed around in his hand as he lifted it up. All eight stubby arms reached and twisted around. The hands grabbed at the air. It didn’t seem to like being held. Even so it didn’t sting him or bite him or do anything at all except thrash and make noise like water splattered on a wood stove.
“You’ll come with me.” He opened the duffel and shoved the thing inside. It grabbed onto the spare duffel he’d stuffed in there and called down. “Good shit.”
He zipped up the duffel. This many of the critters, if he could get them out, it’d make him a bundle. Not exactly what he had in mind but why not take it? Plenty of people wanted payback. He could sell the Eetees and make people happy. Why let the government have all the fun? It’d take some work to set up but it could be done.
Jeff left the duffel and stepped up onto the edge of the trough. He kept the Glock with him. If the little ones were still alive there might be others. Halfway across the room he caught sight of a larger caterpillar. He walked across the room on the troughs to avoid the bodies in the aisles until he got to the big caterpillar. Like the others it had died but this one had green rings instead of blue. Not only that but had what could only be a heavy black gun in one hand.
He bent and picked up the gun. It felt heavy and sturdy in his hand. In shape and weight it reminded him of a sawed-off shotgun. At the barrel-end of this, though, he didn’t see any openings. A ray gun?
One way to find out.
Chris found the shaft and floated in the space. “Jeff? Are you okay?”
The cry came from below. Chris pushed off and floated down. The next level matched the first and he didn’t see Jeff.
“Where are you?”
At the next level Chris saw a light. He reached the first opening and pulled himself through. He took in the troughs and dead bodies.
“Jeff? What happened?”
A bright flashlight shone in his face. He raised his hands to block the light but he couldn’t see anything.
“Damn things aren’t all dead. You came down here and this big one had a weapon. I shot it dead but not before it got you.”
Chris dove onto the bodies at his feet.
Then the only sound Chris heard came from the troughs. A splashing and slurping noise. He lifted his head. He saw the light from Jeff’s flashlight but not Jeff. When nothing moved he got up, tensing in case Jeff did something else.
He picked his way around the bodies and crossed the room to where the flashlight lay. Jeff lay on the floor. Nearby was an alien gun as black as space. A fist-sized hole had been punched through Jeff’s chest. The wound oozed but the edges looked charred.
Chris crouched down and studied the gun without picking it up. He looked at the big alien lying dead with a couple bullet holes in its body. He understood Jeff’s plan. He had planned to lure Chris down and kill him with the alien weapon. Then Jeff could claim to be a hero for killing the Eetee. Only Jeff had miscalculated. he’d pointed the long end of the gun at Chris only this wasn’t a projectile weapon. The long part matched the length of the Eetee arm. It would have held the short grip in its hand with the long part of the gun lying along its forearm. The stubby end of the gun was the business end which Jeff had pointing at himself.
Chris stood up and looked at the young Eetees in the troughs. It’d be hard but they’d have to try and care for them. Maybe the Eetees could learn and help them understand what had happened in space above. It wouldn’t be easy. He looked at Jeff’s body. There’d be more men like him, filled with greed and hate.
Chris headed back to the shaft. As he passed the duffel bag he heard a sound like a kettle spitting from inside. He unzipped and discovered a young Eetee.
“Poor little guy.” Chris gently lifted the alien up. When it started flailing its arms he slid one arm around beneath it automatically, just like he did with Paul. The little guy grabbed on with all eight hands and the tension in its body relaxed. Chris lowered it to the trough. The red tendrils waved and it scrambled down, slipping into the gunk. “You’re welcome. I’ll be back.”
Chris sat on the porch swing with Lynn. Paul sat on his lap. Lynn leaned her head against her shoulder. “You’re sure the Mayor supports your plan?”
“Yes. We’re going to clean out the ship. The bodies will have to be burned. There’s so many. But after that he’s putting me in charge of the ship. I’ll do everything I can to keep the Eetees alive so we can learn from them.”
“Things aren’t going to go back to the way they were, are they?”
He kissed her head. “Nope. It’s time for us to grow up. If we help these Eetees grow up maybe they can return the favor.”
This story is the 38th weekly short story release, written in October 2009 at one of the first writer’s workshops I’ve attended on the Oregon coast. This one did get an e-book and print release at the beginning of 2014, so it is available through various retailers.
Eventually I’ll do a new e-book and print releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.
If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. I’m also serializing novels now on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is a fantasy story Tom Scratch.