by Val Tobin
(Edited by Kelly Hartigan (XterraWeb)
The fire behind me cast shadows on the cave wall. I saw my own shadow bend over that of the prone form in front of me. I didn’t touch it.
It was weak and lay there, no movement, not even a twitch, though it had shifted from its side to its back at some point. The skin was white, luminous, the eyes and mouth only dark, gaping holes. No nose or ears interrupted the smooth lines of the head, and each hand had only four long, slender fingers. At the end of its feet were four small stumps I counted as toes. Impossible to tell its gender, I referred to it as “it.” A thing. An object.
I should kill it. I have to let it live. Brad, my husband, wanted to kill it.
I didn’t blame him. This creature and its race had almost wiped out every inhabitant on earth, including our two children, within two years. Yet when I looked at it, I felt pity. I can’t murder a living being.
“I want this taken care of,” Brad snarled at me as I woke him to take his watch.
I didn’t reply, and his words hung in the air, echoing in the chill, lonely cavern.
I want this taken care of.
He said it so smoothly, as if murder were as easy as taking shirts to the cleaners—as if this thing and its kind weren’t more advanced, more intelligent, and more ruthless than the human race.
I lay down, leaving it to Brad’s mercy, half-fearing and half-hoping he’d kill it while I slept.
Brad didn’t go near it as I settled onto my sleeping bag. He sat with the fire between himself and the creature and proceeded to fix some breakfast.
Even after more than two years of living this way, I couldn’t get used to it. Seeing our everyday possessions scattered about a cave was surreal and ludicrous.
As Brad lowered the cooking pot onto the two green logs positioned on either side of the fire and dropped a tea bag into his mug, I felt again that urge to write this off as a bad dream. How could this be real when that nice, ordinary-looking mug in his hand said Merry Christmas?
We should be at home, waking to the smell of fresh coffee from the automatic coffee maker. The kids should be rising to start their day, clamouring for breakfast, preparing for school.
It’s just as well the kids are dead. Those who died at the beginning are the lucky ones. Those thoughts always bring guilt, which is never far away. I miss my angels more with each passing day, and I just want them back. I’d do anything to bring them back, but that just creates more guilt.
Bring them back to this? They’re better off dead.
And so the cycle continues.
I wake from every sleep to find I’ve been crying, reliving it all in my dreams—as if reliving it in the waking hours isn’t punishment enough.
The horror had begun with increased reports of UFO sightings. Of course, we’d joked about it. UFOs over Lake Ontario.
“I can’t believe I’m reading this in the Toronto newspaper and not a tabloid,” I said to Brad the day it hit front-page news. They even had a picture of a glowing, saucer-shaped object. “The government will probably say it’s a weather balloon.”
When I recall how flippant I was, I want to scream.
Brad had made pancakes that morning, and the kids wolfed them down while I scrambled to get their lunches together and scarf down my own breakfast.
That was our last meal together as a family. Those were our last few precious hours together in our quaint, urban condominium. I sent the kids off to school. Joanne, nine, with her pigtails and ribbons, her brown eyes always curious and lively. Andrew, eleven, organized, darkly handsome in a geeky kind of way. I know I’m his mother, but he’s beautiful—was beautiful.
I sent them to their deaths. Memories are all I have left now.
Brad glanced over and caught me staring at him. “We have to do it. The longer we keep it around, the riskier it is. If you don’t, I’ll do it myself. I don’t understand why you had to bring it in here in the first place.”
Just to screw you up, dear. I kept that to myself and turned onto my other side so he wouldn’t see the smile on my face. No, there was nothing funny about any of this, but it was hard not to chuckle when I recalled the look on his face as I dragged the alien into our lair last night.
“Hi, honey. I’m home,” I’d said. “We have a guest.”
Brad’s eyes had gone wide, and his mouth had dropped open, lips pursing and making a whistling sound as he sucked in breath. He wet himself and then spluttered and tried not to have an asthma attack while I dragged the creature to the back of the cave. When he found his voice, he cursed me out before asking the first of many logical questions: “Are you fucking crazy?”
“No.” My voice was calm, and I knew it would infuriate him all the more, but I couldn’t help myself. “Don’t worry. I didn’t touch it with my bare hands.” I hoisted the creature up to show him it was wrapped in my jacket, and I’d dragged it along by the hood.
I scanned the cave. “Where are my gloves? I want to take the jacket off it. I wrapped my hands in my shirt to get this on him, and I don’t want to have to do that again.”
Brad ignored my question. “Why did you bring this here? Are you trying to get us killed?”
“First of all,” I said, “stop screaming. Second, if I were trying to get us killed, we’d be dead already.” The gloves lay on the floor next to my sleeping bag, and I slipped them on. I bent over the still form of the alien and eased open the knotted sleeves of my jacket from around its chest. This left it lying on top of the jacket. I grabbed the hood and yanked the whole thing out from under it.
Fascinated, I watched its head bounce soundlessly off the rock floor of the cave. “Don’t you think it should have made at least a thump or a splat?” I looked at Brad.
“Jesus, Lynn, why are you doing this?”
Good question, and it wasn’t easy to explain it to him when I couldn’t explain it to myself. Power? Control? I’d felt both when I had stumbled across the seemingly lifeless form out in the north Ontario woods where I’d been hunting for wild edibles. Brad was right: it was risky, reckless, and foolish. I didn’t give a shit. It was an opportunity I could seize.
“It’s dying. No harm in it right now.”
Brad had insisted on taking the first watch then, and I let him. But I’d understood this wasn’t the end of the discussion. It surprised me that he’d let it slide into the morning. I’d expected him to corner me on it when I’d awoken during the night to take my turn on guard duty.
“Lynn?” Irritation laced Brad’s voice.
“I’ve tried to be patient. I really have.” He paused and exhaled a loud breath of frustration. “We can’t let this go on any longer. What do you want to do with this thing? It can’t stay here.”
I rose, walked to Brad’s side, and crouched beside him. The fire lapped warmth onto my skin, but I shuddered. Across from us, in the glow of the flames, the alien was a luminous lump. “I want to touch it.”
Brad gasped and looked horrified. “No. You could be killed. Why would you want to do that?”
“Your water is boiling,” I said.
“Never mind the water. Answer me.” Nevertheless, he lifted the pot of water off the fire. He looked as if he wanted to pour some into the mug with the tea bag in it, but couldn’t do it.
I picked up his mug, plucked out the teabag, dipped the mug into the pot, and dropped the teabag back in. When I handed it to him, I said, “It’ll be okay. I’m sick of living like this. I’d rather die than live every day wondering if today’s the day they find and kill us. We have one in our power now. Let’s make use of it.”
“How?” he demanded. “They’re probably searching for it. If they find it, they find us. We have to get rid of it.”
“I didn’t bring it here to kill it, Brad.”
“I didn’t allow it in to be lovingly coaxed back to health, Lynn.”
My sigh hissed through dry, cracked lips. I scraped my teeth over the little flakes of skin and thought about how much I missed my lip balm. Sometimes, it’s the little things.
I shook my head. “All we’ve been doing for two years is running from them, hiding from them. We know nothing about them.” My voice was calm, steady—no hint of the frustration that bubbled beneath the surface. “We can study it. Find a way to communicate with it. If we save it …” I didn’t finish, unsure of how to end that sentence. But I pushed on, my voice rising now, and I leaned into Brad, grabbed his arm, and clung to it. “If I touch it while it’s unconscious, it might be all right.”
“You can’t risk that. I won’t let you.” Intense fear and panic laced his words. “Anytime I’ve seen anyone have any physical contact with one of these creatures, that person, without exception, ended up incapacitated, then dead. Is that what you want?”
“No, I just—”
Now it was his turn to grab me, and he looked like he wanted to shake me. “I won’t let you. I couldn’t bear to lose you. We’ve only got each other. You’re the only reason I carry on.”
He made sense. We’d seen these beings entrance people they touched and then suck the life out of them using what Brad and I now referred to as mouth-to-mouth desuscitation. It was horrifying to watch, and, small favour, we’d been spared seeing it happen to our children. But we’d found their discarded bodies when we went to search for them at their school and knew that’s how they’d died.
“I have to try something. With your help, I can figure out a way to reach it. Imagine if we could communicate with it, make it stop the insanity. Get it to help us. Will you work with me, or do I do this alone?”
He sighed and looked away. The silence lingered so long, I was sure he was going to argue further or perhaps attempt to physically force me to give up my plan. I had a sudden vision of Brad hog-tying me and disposing of the alien.
When he finally faced me again, he said, “Okay.” It was a whisper, and I almost missed it.
“I’ll help you, but on my terms. You touch it, but the second it looks like it’s gained any control over you, or if it looks like it’s waking up, I’m knocking you away and torching the fucker. Agreed?”
“Agreed.” His precautions made sense. “Light a torch. Let’s get this over with.”
As soon as Brad had a flaming torch in his hand, I made my way over to the creature, who lay on its back, motionless.
“Wait.” Brad choked out the word. “Are you sure you want to do this? Let’s just take it far away from here and leave it. This could be a big mistake.”
“I love you, Brad,” I said, and before he could say or do anything else, I laid a hand on the creature’s arm.
The body thrummed with life. Awareness of him grew—I knew now it was a him. He had no pulse, no nervous system, and no organs. Pure energy. Male energy. With a jolt, I realized he was aware of me. His head turned to me, the eyes mesmerizing.
When the alien stirred, Brad called out my name in a panic.
I glanced at him. “It’s okay. I’m okay.” I gave my attention back to the alien.
The cave immediately felt stifling, the fire loud, menacing. Brad moved in with the torch—too close. I wanted to wave him away, scream at him to back off, but I was so tired. I lowered myself to lie beside the alien, one arm across his chest so that we were body to body, lover-like.
With me next to him, he strengthened, and I wanted to help him become stronger still. The cave faded, dimness replaced by white light that flowed over us. Visions assaulted me.
The world, young, uninhabited. It evolved and the first creature crawled onto land. I saw the time of the dinosaurs, the ice ages. The aliens arrived and created the first humans, a new line separate from one that already existed. The aliens left, and humans proliferated like weeds.
The images passed before me at dizzying speed, but slowed when the aliens returned for their harvest. They came as vast, saucer-shaped balls of light. What I’d seen in the newspapers in those early days weren’t Spaceships at all. It was the aliens themselves, bound together, magnificent balls of energy.
The globes separated into small aureoles that soared away, each following its own mission. The alien I’d bonded with drew me along on its flight through the streets of Toronto where people went about their business, oblivious to what approached from the sky.
We descended, zooming towards a multi-level parking garage in a mall. We sailed past a man in the booth at the entrance. He never glanced up. We soared past parked cars, slowed, and then stopped as we spotted a man getting out of his vehicle.
A cell phone pressed to his ear, he was absorbed in his own business. Call ended, he leaned back into the car and pulled a briefcase from behind the front seat.
The ball of light formed into the humanoid shape I’d become used to seeing. As one being, we approached the man. Before he cried out or moved, our arms embraced him, and our hands cradled his head and drew him close. Our eyes gazed into his deep blue ones. Our gaping mouth covered his soft lips, and I felt his energy flow into us. Some of that energy fed and nourished us, while most of it would be stored for later release.
But something was wrong. Something else slid out of the man in addition to the electrical force we’d cultivated the species for: a spirit inhabited this body. The species had acquired a soul.
The scene shifted, and we found ourselves with another person in our arms. A woman gazed up at us, yielding and slack-mouthed. Gently, we stroked her hair with the four fingers of one hand as the other hand drew her in tight. We covered her mouth with ours, and the energy flowed once again. This time, we anticipated the soul and felt its joy at being released from its physical prison.
It flew away, out into the universe where it belonged, where it had originated.
As if from a distance, I felt the alien’s mouth lower to mine. Our bodies melted together in the death kiss for which I now yearned.
Abruptly, painfully, I was jolted away from it. Flames roared past me, and through vertigo and the crackle of fire, I heard Brad screaming. My head throbbing, eyes seared and struggling to adjust to the bright flashes of heat and orange light, I dragged my face up. Black spots danced before my eyes. My stomach churned and roiled. The stench and sting of smoke filled my eyes, nose, and throat.
I squeezed my eyes shut to clear them and they streamed with tears. When I opened them again, Brad was on the ground, moaning in agony. The alien was gone.
I ran to Brad, sobbing. My voice hoarse, I screamed his name. He was grey and sooty, his skin red and peeling. One of his hands reached out to me, and I saw it had been burned black.
“Oh, God. I’ll get water.” I sobbed, choked.
“No.” The effort to speak almost made him pass out. “Don’t go.”
“I have to.” I tried to sound reassuring. “You need help.” Frantic, I ran to the bucket of water we kept by the fire, my knees and hands shaking so badly I thought I would spill it.
When I returned to him, he was dead.
I sat with his body for I don’t know how long. Perhaps I observed at least one nightfall and sunrise outside the mouth of the cave, but it barely registered through the numbness.
In the end, I decided to leave. I had thoughts of finding the alien again. He couldn’t have made it far when he’d been so close to death. I’m sure he’s still out there. I don’t know if what he offered was the truth, the final reality, but I’m willing to risk that it was. With Brad gone, I have nothing left to lose.
And when I dream at night of my lost lover, it’s the alien’s face that I see.
Selected from The Welcome: and other Sci-Fi stories