In sleep I see what lies beyond this world. Vast shapes skulk in the cold crevasses of the cosmos and slither through the fissures of reality. They glide through the void in perpetual craving, unscathed by the ravages of time and cellular decay. They are as they once were, and as they will continue to be. Amorphous shapes squirm and spread across the skyline then coalesce into organisms the size of moons. Dimensions rupture like dehisced wounds. Alien suns cower before slippery swarms. An eye opens. Plump spores rain down from orbit. There is nowhere to hide and I must—
I meander in and out of consciousness. Colossal insects whirr. No, the frequency is mechanical, not organic. Drills. The dreams recede. Disjointed thoughts hit me in staccato waves. Where? Yellowstone Caldera, way below the resurgent dome and the geysers, past the water reservoirs and the brine, close to a soothing pocket of basaltic magma. The heat reminds me of home. This is my nest.
The humans have found me, as they always do. I am grateful for this intrusion; I have been dreaming for too long. And I will be hungry soon.
Dust settles. Rocks crumble. Heavily armed troops enter my domain. One of the soldiers pokes my cocoon with a probe. The cocoon’s membrane bursts and splashes her with miasmatic juice. The acid chews through her armor, skin, and bones. She collapses, dead but still melting. The others back away and open fire. Electricity jolts my nest. I do not feel any of it.
The soldiers stop and dispatch remote-controlled vehicles. The dog-sized contraptions advance on tracks and slash through my cocoon with near-proximity lasers. I fall out. The vision of my form, sprawled on the floor and drenched in its own liquids, prompts some of the humans to gag.
It is freezing outside, barely fifty-five degrees Celsius. I cannot move. I am a prisoner of my own biology, for now. This torpor will last for days—longer, in a colder climate.
The drones drag my body into a plain-carbon steel drum reliable enough to transport nuclear waste. My prison is then loaded onto a plane. Onboard machinery spells out our direction via binary sputters: a subsurface laboratory in the far reaches of Antarctica. Fully fed and awake, I could spend months standing still in a blizzard, but after getting ripped out of my cocoon in the midst of regenerating, cold is the last thing I want. Bathing in lava would shock my system back to life. A few minutes on a windy beach would trigger a narcoleptic fit.
The plane gains altitude. The temperature plummets. Maggots squirm and feast on pallid meat. Black blood bubbles out of gelatinous soil. The eye knows I am here. The maggots burrow into my tail and I try to slap them away, only to realize I am still in my cage. These visions are wrong. Something is happening.
With what little energy I have, I plunge into the spectrum.
Radiations in a dizzying array of frequencies hit my skin. Radio waves bounce against the ionosphere; my pores soak up the refracted downpour of skywave propagations. Ultraviolets and infrareds purr. Gamma rays bombarding the ozone layer echo like distant drums. I am too feeble to sift fully through all the ranges but can easily tell the air is bloated with artificial noise. How long have I hibernated for? Sixteen years, based on the plane’s flight instruments—a short nap. How quickly a whole planet can morph. A ceaseless flood of machine—made waves drowns out the Homo sapiens’ grunts.
I detect something irregular lurking in the alcoves of that deafening static. No, I detect some thing. It is dim, far from this quadrant, but strangely close at the same time. I try to hearken to the alien resonance. I follow its trail like a frenzied bloodhound, and a surge of dread plows into me.
The thing reeks.
Its presence emits signals on myriad wavelengths. In its putrid radiations, I witness the dust-scattering rings of distant magnetars. The charged particles of pulsar wind nebulae cackle at the gravitational pull of dark matter. Amoeba-shaped alpha lobes twist grotesquely in the dark. The Boötes void opens its non-mouth and gobbles up galaxies. Gas giants cower in the blinding, high-redshift pulse of quasars. A blue straggler abides by its vampiric nature and sucks the hydrogen from nearby stars to retain its youth. I behold the universe’s predatory beauty and—
I feel fear.
The humans keep me in a sterile room. I am in a large cube made of a radio-opaque material-bulletproof, multilayered glass, according to its subtle quivers. Outside of the cube, two scientists study me. Their voices’ fundamental frequencies disclose their genders. One male, one female.
“This specimen is roughly five feet tall. Vaguely humanoid, but seems to share features with mollusks and gastropods. Some sort of mucus drips from its skin. Does it move using muscular contractions?”
“I can’t see any legs, so you may be right. I count six—no, seven appendages. Are they tentacles? Tendrils? It could use those for movement.”
Their poise is admirable. The speakers’ voices are composed and steady, free of laryngeal spasms. I suspect the use of relaxants.
“No eyes or any organ that might allow it to see. It might be blind.”
Wrong. Lack of eyesight does not imply blindness. It is easy to keep a goldfish in a bowl of stagnant water and fail to be impressed by its tetrachromacy. Some humans are blessed with aphakia and the others dare to call them handicapped.
One of the scientists, the female, approaches the glass. She is now close enough for me to decrypt her bio-tag. Doctor Lisa Marino. Not so calm after all. Her heart rate is elevated. Sweat gathers in the small of her back. Her body reels with the wrongness of what I am. In her stomach, gastric acid attacks a recently eaten bagel. A couple of centimeters away, a tumor clutches to her pancreas. The tumor is gorgeous, shaped like a meaty cloud the color of nicotine.
“Can you understand us?” the woman says.
Spoken words are nothing but air displaced in discernible patterns. I try to move one of my tails to reply.
Her male colleague, remaining at a safer distance, says, “This thing doesn’t even have ears, Lisa.”
“Doesn’t mean it can’t understand us,” she says. She tries again, in multiple languages. “Est-ce que vous me comprenez? Me entiendes? Wakarimasu ka?”
The answers are yes, oui, si, hai. She could try in Italian, Chinese, Latin, Arabic, in any accent or patois. Were she able to wield Sumerian, I would scrawl logographic symbols depicting the fall of Ur. Should she address me in ancient Egyptian, I could draw hieroglyphs of the black ziggurats built in my honor now resting far below the dunes of Giza.
But I am paralytic. My body craves warmth. The ambient temperature in this prison would suit a mammal. If I remain here, then I will die, and so will Lisa Marino, her colleagues, and the majority of life on Earth. My senses do not betray me.
Lisa Marino turns to the male. “Let’s run some preliminary tests.”
The scientists leave. I expected them to start with close-contact tests such as drawing blood or gathering skin samples. I suppose they deemed it too risky. Their survival instincts prevailed over their curiosity.
Their remote probing begins with environmental testing. Gases are pumped into the room. Oxygen drops to two percent then rises to a hundred. Hydrogen sulfide fails to provide any result. Cue butane, ethane, halocarbon, helium, silane, neon, propylene, and on, and on. Hours crawl by. If only they knew I don’t breathe.
Lisa Marino and her colleague return to take a closer look-through the safety of the glass, of course. “Its skin isn’t showing any reaction at all,” she says. “I don’t understand what this thing’s made of.”
The male says, “Should we try to adjust the temperature?”
“Yes,” Lisa Marino says.
I brace myself for freedom until the thought hits me: I might fall asleep and never wake up.
“Current temperature?” she says.
“Bring it down to six. Let’s see.”
Unseen machineries come to life and shuffle energy. Docile molecules replace their agitated counterparts. Minutes flash by. The scientists’ body heat vanishes. Their voices dwindle. The range of frequencies to which I am attuned shrinks to that of a jellyfish, then shrinks some more. The world fades, and so do I.
“Did it just move?”
“Did anyone see that?
Sensory floodgates burst open. My insides stir.
The temperature is sixty-one degrees. I understand: I fell into a slumber but the humans, after leaving the room, turned up the heat. Unconscious, I must have twitched without realizing it, like a cat surrendering its motor control to the puppeteers of REM sleep.
Sixty-three degrees. My retracted antennae thrum. The voices did not come from this room. Good. I am no longer useless. The login terminal outside of the chamber speaks, offers the names of every single person who works here. I chart the room. Glass cube, cement floors and walls, cameras, laser tripwires linked to alarms, gas pumps, speakers, fire sprinklers, creaking pipes, wires snaking through the walls. The only exit consists of a 25-ton blast door. Hiroshima’s Little Boy would barely scratch the paint. Nagasaki’s Fat Man might do it. How do I get out? I need a burst of heat-flames, or an explosion. Could I use electric sparks? Impossible. Even if I could force the humans to pump flammable gases in here, the sprinklers would render my efforts futile.
Sixty-seven degrees. Radio waves undulate through me and divulge the presence of three hundred and forty-five different computers connected to the same network. The content of their hard drives remains cryptic for now.
“We can’t raise the temperature much higher, we’d have to move it to a different compartment,” Richard Rankine says over a distant microphone.
“Bring it up to seventy degrees,” Lisa Marino says.
Sixty-nine degrees. A computer in the hallway reveals the existence of an armory two floors up. Grenades would do the trick, but I still feel too weak to blink. And even if I could, I doubt it would be more than a couple of meters away.
Seventy degrees. I slap one of my tails against the ground. My appendage whacks wetly against the surface and remains there, flaccid as a dead snake. I had hoped to make a dent in the cursed thing. Pathetic.
Screams of joy and surprise erupt over the airwaves.
Lisa Marino brings her mouth close to a microphone, and I imagine her shaking her head at the stupidity of her question. “Do you understand me?”
I tap my tail once. Still too weak, but at least it’s movement.
Richard Rankine says, “It doesn’t mean anything. It may just be a muscular reflex. Perhaps a reaction to sounds or variations in temperature.”
I move again. Richard Rankine shuts his mouth.
“If you understand this,” Lisa Marino says, “move your tail twice.”
Contact has been established.
Lisa Marino faces me, separated by glass. Six soldiers stand next to her, three on each side. They don’t carry anything I could use. Diplomacy may be my only way out. “Tap once for yes, twice for no, three times if I misunderstood you or if I need to change my question,” she says. “Understood?”
“Do you—Jesus Christ—do you wish to harm us?”
One tap. This is not a lie. Her use of the word wish is careless at best.
“Are you… are you from this planet?”
“Are you alone?”
Three taps. Clarify.
“Are you the only one of your kind here?”
One tap. This is my dominion.
“Did our tests hurt you?”
Two taps. No, wait. Three taps. Then one. The cold.
“Do you need something from us?”
Finally. One tap.
She remains silent for nearly a full minute, lost in thought. I tap three times and she says, “Okay, okay. Let’s go back to basics. You were asleep. We took you from your resting place, brought you here and you fell asleep again, but you woke up. And you’ve been hurt.”
“Was it the temperature?”
“You need us to increase it?”
One tap. A loud one.
“Anything else? Oxygen? Water? Humidity?”
Over the sound system, Richard Rankine says, “It could be lying to us, Lisa. What if we raised the temperature and this thing… does something?”
How eloquent of him.
“He’s right,” she says. “We can already communicate in a rudimentary way. If we raise the temp, nothing guarantees our safety.”
I slowly lift up a tail. The guards tense. Even more slowly, I point the tail at the glass I’m encased in, the cameras, the soldiers’ weapons. My message: you’ve got the upper hand.
Something occurs to me. This whole complex must have been here for several years. They were prepared. Lisa Marino’s composure is a clear sign of drugs, yes, but also a sign of long weeks of training. One does not encounter a new life form with such casualness. I don’t understand, don’t yet have the potency to plunder the data that might provide an answer.
Lisa Marino says, “I’m sorry, but I would rather await further instructions. Are you at risk if you remain at this temperature?”
One tap. Not a lie. She didn’t ask if the temperature itself was the risk.
She sighs. “Richard, what’s the max temp for this containment unit?”
This containment unit. This means there are more. Awaiting further instructions indicates a plan.
“Eighty degrees. Lisa, I don’t think—”
“Make it eighty degrees,” she says. She readjusts her coat, takes a deep breath. “I’ll be back in a while. If you try anything, we’ll bring the temperature down. Way down. Will you remain calm?”
No other human has ever dared to threaten me before. She is growing on me.
I reply with a single tap. A lie.
Eighty degrees. The clock ticks. It has been over an hour since Lisa Marino and her lapdogs left the room. Could I blink now? Or would I splat against the glass walls? Perhaps not even reemerge at all, too frail for my body to handle the transfer? And even if I blinked, what would I do then?
So I stay still and gather strength. I feel it in the way my receptors open up. My understanding of recent technology grows with each passing second. My vocabulary expands.
Lisa Marino is six floors below, video chatting with a scientist in Beijing, asking how quickly they could ship one of their T-ray scanners. They discuss the use of full-body scanners, thermographic and SPECT cameras, mid-range Doppler ultrasonographs, and a litany of other devices that will tell them nothing. Above and below her location, I map the heat pulses of scientists milling about the building like hyperactive ants, digging into the data they have gathered.
Building. Data. Why did they build this place?
I sacrifice a fraction of my juice and slither through the nearest wireless signal. SHF radio waves lead to the router, which guides me to the central network and the armada of computers connected to it. Heavy encryption shrouds the evidence, but encryption is code. Code is binary. Binary equals electrical states—an effortless read. I process the information. Instants later, I stumble upon a hard drive with details about this location.
This isn’t the only compound they built. There are two others—one located in the Sahara desert and the other in Death Valley.
The humans know they’re not alone. I believe they’ve always suspected it, the suppressed truth clinging to their reptilian brains like a cautionary tick, but technology has given them proof. They’ve been searching all around the globe, and they’re digging for more. This is how they found me. Not chance. Not randomness. They were ready, or so they thought.
I maraud through bits. The image appearing in my mind’s eye triggers something I have not experienced in centuries. Raw, pure, beautiful anger.
They’re building a gate. Those dumb bipedal wastes of carbon. I see the pictures now, the maps, the schematics, the emails exchanged. Beneath the Krubera caves, hidden three kilometers under the surface is a monument to madness. Pillars loom over an underground construction site. Two fusion-powered pylons the color of obsidian enshrine the gate’s yawning mouth.
That thing I felt back when I was being transported hasn’t found Earth by itself. The humans are inviting it, building a bridge between Here and the Void. The portal must be in its final testing stages, almost functional. How else could I have suffered the thing’s presence waiting behind the door, its stomach rumbling with never-ending hunger?
And what does that make me? A test run? Just a small catch while they wait for the big fish?
The hubris of those monkeys.
They’ve misunderstood their sentience’s defining purpose. Consciousness is the ultimate evolutionary trick. It allows the humans, as well as my kind, to ponder and fear the existence of hypothetical predators. Precognitive terror is a gift; to ignore it is insanity. Instead of hiding from the unknown, they’ve decided to confront it. They’ve forgotten what it’s like not to be the dominant species. I never forget. This has allowed me to endure the eons, but I am only a small blip on the cosmic scale. There are worse things than me. The humans don’t know. They’ve never blinked past the clouds and tried, really tried, to see what this universe is. They’re not wary of living organisms big enough to encompass stars. They’ve never observed interstellar bacteria devouring mineral giants in a matter of days, then vomiting their DNA into the vacuum, letting it drift until it reaches a new system. Farmer mycophages infecting worlds with mutated fungi, altering the landscape as they see fit, readying it for consumption. Packs of elephant-sized beasts that would make tardigrades look fragile, latching on to passing asteroids and gorging on their gases.
So the humans take a walk through the dark with a flashlight, shouting into the abyss in hopes of what, exactly? Finding Mommy or Daddy? Curing their loneliness? Solving their philosophical cravings for answers? I don’t want to be alone out here, cries the prey. Don’t worry, you’re not, growls the predator, baring a bloody grin.
I can’t afford to wait any longer. I must get to the armory.
I hit the ground with my tails, testing my strength. A scientist watching the feed whispers to his colleague, “Did you see that?”
I slam the floor harder. The glass walls tremble. Ceiling lights blip once. One hundred seventy guards receive an alert on their ear chips and pour out of their rooms.
Lisa Marino hangs up on Beijing, runs for the nearest microphone. “Lock it down!” she screams.
No choice. I picture the armory’s location and blink.
My body wanes. Molecules separate and glide in unison as if lifted by the same quantic stream. Photons entangle, shift, duplicate, and die, leaving room for newer copies. For an instant, I am nothing, and I am at peace.
Then I rematerialize and crash into a wall with enough force to trigger every single alarm in the compound.
I was too weak. I only flashed out of the cube. Desperate plan: I’ll wait for the guards to come in here, suck their juices for a brief boost, and then—
“Do not enter that room,” screams Lisa Marino over the speakers. “Everyone, remain where you are. I repeat: do not enter the room.”
Behind the door, eighty-three soldiers stand still, rifles at the ready.
She’s going to bring the temperature down, as promised. Smart. It’s a matter of minutes until the cold cripples me once more. I focus on the armory, visualize its position in space by chasing power currents, its dimensions and contours, the walls I must pass through in order to reach it. I plot a mental path and blink out into a hallway, right in front of two soldiers.
“Oh, fuck,” one of them says, just before I instinctively slap him hard enough to pulverize his spine. The surroundings spin as my brain recalibrates its internal compass. I’m not where I should be. The second soldier raises his weapon. I smack it away, impale him using three tails, lift his body up and wait for it to stop seizing. I consider draining him but detect boots stomping around the corner. Sixteen soldiers on the move. I’d have to kill them all in order to drain uninterrupted; I can’t afford the waste of energy. I blink, hoping for the right location this time. Bullets rip through my body as I subside.
I reappear in another hallway and collapse, shaking from exhaustion. Bullets plop out of my flesh. My internal juices begin the healing process, weakening me even more.
This is the right place, though. The armory is down the hall, thirty meters away. I sense the touchpad on its door.
I try to blink once again and pain explodes within my chest, intense enough to maim my receptors for a split second. I’ve depleted myself. I may have one jump left—a potentially crippling one.
Lisa Marino compared me to a mollusk and a gastropod, back when I was in her glass cube. If only she could study me now, using my extremities to propel myself, creeping along like a vulgar octopus advancing on dry land. A security camera spots my movements and turns its flashing eye in my direction, prompting a base-wide radio freak out. Soldiers will be here within thirty seconds, maybe less. I crawl, each forward movement slower than the last. Keep going, I tell myself. You will not die here. Not like this. Not to them.
I reach the armory. The elevator at the opposite end of the hall dings. Its doors open and soldiers storm out. I squash myself against the door and focus.
I blink with everything I have left and reappear on the other side of the door. I stumble and thrash around like a fly with its wings ripped off. My awareness grows treacherous. Reality slants. Plane waves morph to flat lines then become spikes. Light bulbs on the ceiling cough up aliased halos. Soldiers screaming behind the door sound like squeaking mice. Something is pummeling my torso, my head.
I realize I’m hitting myself with my tails—but only six of them. The seventh was lost in the latest blink, leaving behind an open wound from which juices squirt. I miscalculated the trajectory.
Concentrate. Find the grenades.
I’m not strong enough to discern the faint signal of a motionless grenade anymore, so I must rely on touch. I blindly ruffle through the shelves, shaking and convulsing as my internal organs fail.
The soldiers try to open the door, but it’s sealed shut due to the alarm. “We need the armory on floor B-2 unlocked right now,” one of them says into his headset.
I knock over entire rows of rifles, backpacks, med-packs, and night-vision goggles. A tail latches onto something vaguely ball-shaped. It’s a flashbang, so I discard it. Bulletproof jackets, guns and knives, helmets, ammo, and I—
“E.T.A. ten seconds,” another voice says.
—grasp another item. Yes. I turn around, bring the tip of a tail to its pin.
The door bursts open, and the grenade explodes.
Air particles break the speed of sound. Fire engulfs everything. The detonation bathes me in 1,100 degrees Celsius. In the span of a millisecond, my abdomen hardens. Antennules sprout out of my skin. Electro-sensors swell. I spit out sinusoidal discharges in monstrous waves. They ripple through the base. I perceive every life form in a four-kilometer radius, from the cockroaches scurrying across bathroom tiles to the fish-fat albatross riding air currents above us. The base’s complete topography emerges in my mind, its structure sketched by power lines and radio waves. Time sags, and I see everything.
I am awake.
I am hungry.
Before the room even begins to collapse, before the blast knocks me backward or reaches any of the soldiers, I blink out of the armory and into Richard Rankine’s office. My tails undulate behind me. Flames dance on my smoking skin.
“What—” he says, losing control of his bladder.
I leap forward and pin him to the ground. A prehensile proboscis blossoms out of my skull. I stab the appendage deep into his chest and suck him dry. His skin withers like a fruit robbed of its moisture. His eyes get swallowed deep into their sockets. His organs collapse, shrink and liquefy as I syphon them up. Liters of blood pour into my bloating stomach. Richard Rankine’s connective matter rips apart. My seventh tail regenerates as I eat. I suck and suck until nothing remains save for a pile of collapsed bones and teeth.
Another warp. I reemerge in Lisa Marino’s office. The guard doesn’t have time to aim. I swipe and behead him. Blood geysers out of his neck. His body slumps to the floor.
“No, please,” Lisa Marino says, backing away until a wall stops her.
I extend a tail, grab her by the neck, and bring her closer. My proboscis lengthens again and Lisa closes her eyes. I pierce through the skin of her stomach and she lets out a yelp of pain. I navigate past the rectus sheath, the transverse colon, the stomach, and locate the tumor. Instead of sucking, I spray some of my vital fluids, then retract the proboscis and release my grip.
She opens her eyes and brings a hand to the slow-bleeding wound. She is too shocked to speak.
I dip a tail in the dead guard’s blood like a quill in ink, and write on the wall to my left. TUMOR. HEAL.
With another tail, I point at the first aid kit hanging on the wall.
“Why?” she says. “I don’t—”
I write, I WILL COME BACK.
This is not a threat, but an offer. Cultists have their uses—smart, knowledge-starved ones even more so.
I vanish and re-emerge in an empty room, free from distraction. I tap into the computers, the networks, the power lines, light bulbs and heating, artificial web-strands that spread around this place and allow it to function. I unleash the closest thing I have to a roar—an electro-magnetic pulse powerful enough to shut it all down.
Generators fail. Alarms are muted. Monitors go black. Two drones drop out of the sky. Every vehicle has been disabled. The nearest working electronic device is over a thousand kilometers away. Darkness descends.
Humans, well—they scream.
I will return soon. I have stored my food source. I would never let it spoil.
And so I blink again, through walls and layers of cement and concrete and steel, out into the ultraviolet light of day. I land on a hill, dash upwards, snatch a passing bird and drain it, then discard its carcass. The remains dim on the infrared and succumb to gravity. Cloud droplets emit a dazzling symphony of crackles as they freeze. Molecules swirl in a never-ending binding ballet. The sun spews deadly rays through a cloudless sky. I blink into the ocean. Pillars of radiations hammer the surface with unrelenting intensity. Distant whales hum songs of sorrow. Wavelengths ebb and flow, untangle, coil, and bend like dithering rainbows. The Earth spins through a vast, carnivorous cosmos.
I am heading to Georgia. I will shred my way through anyone in my path, race beneath the ground, deep into the network of caves. I will face the gate. But before I punish and then devour the humans guarding the place, right before I make the walls collapse and let rocks bury this folly forever, I will grant the thing on the other side a single peek. I will meet its ravenous mouth, and in that sliver of time where natures clash in hopes of asserting dominance, I will spit out a single message with my antennae:
This is my territory.
© 2015 by Axel Taiari
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