Saturday, August 15, 2015

Strange Fellows, pt. 1

He lay in the darkness, the stinking darkness surrounded by the metallic thrum of the space.  He didn't have a name for the space, the strange dark grey space with its solid sky lowered down above him.  He lay and seethed in quiet resentment.  His rage had burned out long ago until he had to collapse, exhausted and feverish but frustrated.  His rage had been spent fruitlessly, pounding and straining to free himself.  He hadn't succeeded.

Far above and removed by an ocean of intellect and arrogance, two men sat over mugs of coffee and electronic charts.

"Last position?"

"Four point two klicks from the island."  This man reached for the engine controls and pulled the throttles back.  The thrumming of the deck slowed to a fast pulse.   "We're to pause about here until two in the morning."

"How come?"

"I think moving this thing off the boat is going to be a chore, and of course the big boss doesn't want him observed."

"No surprise there.  Can you imagine trying to do anything with it on the coast?  So many big cities, way too many eyes."


"So where are we exactly?"

"Can't tell you...exactly."

The two of them let that sink in.

"You know I can read the chart, right?"


"So why here?"

"We're a good ten klicks from land on either side and the entire island is covered with dense forest.  There's even a little lodge on one end so they've been able to set up some monitoring and housing."

"You couldn't pay me enough to stay on land with that thing."

"But you don't mind being trapped on a boat with it?"

"I can always jump in the water.  I'm not as afraid of anything in the water as I am of that."

As the shadow above slowed from its steady, plodding progress to a crawl, then to a gently bobbing halt, he looked up at it.  It was strange.

He had followed it for days.  He had stayed directly below it for hours on end, emerging to breathe only in the deadest hours of the night.  He had cruised at a painfully slow pace, shadowing the shadow as it churned along, unhurried despite its noisiness.  He had listened to the crashes and bellows that occasionally emanated from the thing, and wondered what they must mean.  It was like so many other shadows that crossed the lightness above him, but for the sounds unlike anything else.

He had wondered, occasionally, about the dark, silent blacknesses that slid beneath him.  They were so unlike the ones above.  They weren't common but unlike the ones above, the ones below, between him and the bottom, they usually made no sound whatsoever.  He only knew they were there by the heat of their passage, and the soft caress of the pressure of the water they pushed aside.  Their purpose was a mystery but he was not curious enough about them to care.  Many things made no sound at all in the crackling depths, and some shouted hunger while others screamed terror or defiance.

The surface shadows usually only hummed and rattled and stank.  But not this one.  It hummed and stank but it also crashed and roared.  That was fascinating, and he had followed it here.

Here was as strange as anything he had ever encountered.  The taste of the water had completely changed.  The fish were smaller and there were no whales at all.  He had passed silently below entire schools of surface shadows, but not gone up to investigate them.   He had seen little shadows before. 

It wasn't unusual for fish to school, maybe the shadows schooled too.  But he couldn't hear the largest shadows anymore.  There was only this one.

It lay still at the surface for a while, here, where the water was relatively shallow and sounds didn't carry very far.  He wondered if this lengthy pursuit of idle curiosity hadn't been wasted effort when the shadow hove back into motion, then suddenly crashed and roared its loudest, and he came close beneath it to listen more carefully.

"Gas it!  Sweet Jesus gas it again!  You there, fire!"
The roaring and pounding from within the hold was astounding.   The noise of the creature was like the largest, angriest tractor-trailer bellowing at its loudest inside a small, closed off tunnel.  He thought he could feel his ears vibrating from the onslaught.  The creature hammered at its containment and the entire vessel listed heavily to port, slowly.  At such slow speed its dynamic attitude control system could do nothing, and he waited for the roll to settle.

The gas was taking some effect now.  The roaring was reduced somewhat.

"One more!"


"Yes, dammit, I'm sure, one more!"  Didn't bring them to look at and I sure as hell don't want to try to offload it while it's slamming around like that.

A canister of anesthetic  - what amounted to a gas grill's tank full of sevoflurane - was lobbed into the hold.  It hissed loudly and ejected a visible cloud of spreading gas.

The container bucked and an aggravated snort emerged from within it.

They waited.

Sounds inside the container came to a stop and were replaced by a ponderous, rhythmic rumble.

"Is that snoring?"

"I think it is."

"That's such a cliché."

"Tell him that."

"Pass.  Okay, mask up!  Don't get within ten meters without a mask.  Gassers move in and hook up!  Rousties, go!  Where's the doc?"

A woman's voice sounded from in the cargo hold.  "I'm already here!"

"You got your monitors in place?"

"I shot one into his arm just a minute ago.  It's calibrating but so far we're good."

"Is this gonna work?"

"Hell if I know, never done this before.  Why, you need me for another one?"

He shuddered.  Jesus, I hope not.  Just getting away from the island in one piece had been challenging enough.  The natives had not been friendly.  "Which end is the head on?"

"Right here."  She rapped the side of the container.  "He fell sort of crossways."

The gassers took the cue and moved in, attaching larger containers of anesthetics to send a mist of gas where it was needed.

Overhead, the crane's slings descended and were fastened to the container even as the vessel closed the last of the distance.  The crane lifted the container and slid it astern, and as the shifting mass lifted the bow, the craft's keel ground gently against the pebbled bottom.  The ship had beached.

From below, he watched in frank fascination.  That was new.

Little shadows beached all the time.  Porpoises, occasionally small whales, would beach themselves if he got too close.  They were scared of him and for good reason.  Porpoises were, after all, delicious.  And of course the little surface shadows with their thrashy noises would pull away from the beach, splash around for a while and go back.  He knew the small pinks rode around in them, he had observed pinks jumping out of the shadows, flopping inefficiently in the water, and then clambering clumsily back into the shadows, and the shadows would clatter back to the beach.

Bigger shadows like this one stayed well away from beaches.  But not this one, not this time.  The roaring and banging had tapered off and the shadow slid into the beach.  It still hummed and thrummed like other shadows, but the beaching was strange.

This was the most fascinated and excited he had ever been.  So many strange and curious things to explore!  It was even stranger than the bizarre, narrow river of perfectly smooth, straight sides he had slid through to get into this strange, sweet sea.

It was completely, utterly dark at the surface.  He could see, in wavering flickers, brighter stars through the surface of the water.  He could risk coming shallow.  He pushed very gently against the bottom, rising no faster than the smallest bubble he could exhale.

He surfaced.  His dorsal plates tingled as his body heat radiated through them.  He exhaled slowly, avoiding the guttering bellow he might make if he simply let all his breath out at once.  Out, out, out, feeling his body go heavy as the air inside him emptied, feeling his hind feet and tail make contact with the bottom again.  It wasn't very deep here, but deep enough.

In.  Slowly, quietly, in.  Do not alarm the pinks.  They are not good to eat and can be dangerous, but they are strange, so strange.

The pinks were moving busily around the shadow, which was itself speckled with intense stars so its surface was bright like a moonlit night.  He had seen that kind of thing before, on shadows trailing strange tentacles through the water, gathering fish and shrimp from the bottom.  This shadow had no tentacles, however, but it did seem to have an arm.  It reached and stretched above the shadow, extracted something like a large stone from within the shadow, and reached even further to deposit the strange, rectangular stone on the beach at the water's edge.  It landed with a soft, hollow bong, and a muffled snort sounded from inside the stone.

Strange, strange.  That snort sounded something like the roars the shadow had made.  Had the shadow given birth to an angry baby?  That would be...stranger than anything he had ever seen.
He had seen shadows ingest entire whales, but they didn't often birth anything.  Occasionally some, in warm, shallow seas might expel little shadows that splashed around it for a while, but those invariably went back in.

The arm pulled away, trailing something that looked a bit like other shadows' tentacles.  That was a bit reassuring, seeing that there were some details in common.  Then the many stars on the shadow winked out, its thrum grew and rose, and it churned itself free of the beach.  He submerged himself until he was only a pair of eyes peering above the surface, watching it go until it was almost out of sight.

Pinks crawled around and over the hollow stone, doing things to it.

He watched and wondered.

Light.  Finally.

He had been stuck in this strange grey darkness for longer than he could imagine.  He had wondered if he had died, the endless darkness and incessant thrumming gave him no clue of how long he had been in this peculiar cave with no entrance.

He had bashed and thrashed until his joints ached and his knuckles bled, and knew he was alive.  Dead things didn't bleed, he knew that much.  And it helped to break the monotony from time to time.

Now, here, at last there was something different.  There were little rays of light peeking through holes in the sides and top of the cave.  It was daylight outside this cave, and he could finally get a chance to see things again if he could just get out.

He rolled over and pushed himself upright.  A nagging itch burned at his arm and he clawed it idly, wondering how to attack the cave's resistance this time.

"There went the signal.  I expected that.  Probably scratched it out."

"Is he okay?"

"Well, let me compare his readings to what's typical for his species...I have no effing idea.  What a dumb question."

"Well, ah, jeez.  You know what I mean.  Can you make any kind of assessment at all?"

"I can tell you this much: his blood pressure would blow your head clean off your neck if it was in you.  It's the kind of pressure you expect in plumbing, not biology."

"Is that oka - never mind."  He gulped back the last of his coffee, cold now, and looked at the woman peering at her computer monitor.  "How long was the monitor in?"

"About six hours.  It was starting to lose some of its effectiveness, the needle was clotting over.  The BP readings got pretty murky after about two hours but it's still good enough to show the trends.  I don't know if his blood pressure is healthy for him, but it's pretty consistent.  It fell off pretty well while he was under, but it rose again when he woke up just like it would for you or me, at about the ratio I'd expect for waking versus sleeping.

"His epinephrine fell right off the scale.  It bottomed right out.  He's got less going through him right now than you do.  That's not a scale comparison, that's just straight across."

"Is that weird?  Epinephrine, you mean like an EpiPen?"

"Most people call it adrenaline.  It's essentially the same thing."

"For a human to have adrenaline levels like this would mean he was in a coma.  It didn't change as he was waking up, but I have readings from earlier when he was thrashing around.  He does have adrenaline, just not right now."

"Any ideas what that might mean?"

"I think it means his physical strength is something he can turn on and off, and I think he can hold one hell of a lot of strength in reserve.  It's possible we haven't actually seen him really pull out all the stops.  But here's the thing - adrenaline is associated with fear."

"What, you mean it's part of the fight or flight instinct?"

"Yes, exactly.  Adrenaline is closely associated with fear reactions.  I think so far we've only made him angry.  If he gets scared, I think he's going to make everything we've seen so far look like playtime."

Just as he was raising an arm to bang experimentally on the cave wall, it fell away and landed with a thud.  He heard pattering sounds like little animals running away, but he disregarded that for the moment.

He squinted against the light.  It was fiercely bright after being in the dark for so long, but his eyes were already adjusting.

He inhaled deeply.  More.  More.  Stuck in the cave for so long with his own filth, he hadn't smelled anything good in much too long.  This air was cooler than he was used to, much cooler than home.

And this was very clearly not home.  Home was a warren of peaks and ridges and valleys, of several shallow caves and a few canyons.  This place, whatever it was, was flat.

And it was solidly carpeted with trees.

He understood trees.  The sky at home was held up by trees, massive trees that stretched and reached in wondrous defiance of the ground.  These weren't as mighty as the trees of home, but they were trees, they were tall, and he felt much calmer.  He lunged out of the strange cave, in case it should somehow close him in again, and kept going until he couldn't see the strange little cave anymore.

"Crap, he's fast."

"And accelerated like a Ferrari."

"Here's telemetry.  Tracker's live.  Son of a gun, he cracked 50 KMH for a moment.  He's slowed down.  Wandering around.  Headed toward the lake.  Okay, good."

"Good, why?"

"He's dehydrated.  He wouldn't take much food or water while we had him contained, and good thing too.  The shit pile was enormous even though we gassed him down a few times to try to clean it out.  Anyway, he's been needing water and he's headed right for it."

"Is it clean enough for him to drink?"

"He's been living in a tropical island jungle for God knows how long.  If jungle bugs didn't kill him, nothing here will."

He approached the lake carefully.  Bodies of water at home could be dangerous.  Small, fast rivers were usually safe; wide, slow rivers were usually not.  And at home, the lake held monsters that terrified him.

But here he blazed with thirst.  Nothing had challenged his charge through the forest, buzzing with tiny insects.  Tiny insects, almost too small to see. Certainly too small to be dangerous.  He saw no other animals of any kind.  His thirst urged him forward.

He picked up a fallen tree and poked it at the water.  Curious creatures would usually snap at anything that fell in the water at home, and then he could have an idea of what kind of threats were close.  If only little things jumped, it was probably safe.  If nothing jumped, it almost certainly was not.

Little things wouldn't be in the water around big things, and big things got big by living a long time.  They lived a long time partly by being too smart to jump at mere sticks.

A few small fish splashed in the lake.  That was good.  He slapped the tree into the lake, hard, and lunged back into the forest to see if his bigger disturbance enraged something dangerous.

Nothing came out.

He crept forward and scooped water, drinking quickly, pausing every few moments to raise up and look for threats.

Nothing came out.

He drank some more.

He rose from the cool depths into the flickering darkness.  The shadow he had followed all this way from home was gone.  He had followed it briefly as it paddled back toward the odd little river, but it was no longer interesting.  It acted and sounded like all the other shadows now.

He had eaten several fish.  It had taken a while to eat enough to sate his hunger, the fish here were all much too small for him to normally bother with, but with a little extra time and effort - which had only piqued his appetite further - he had chased enough of them into a cloud and gobbled his way through that, taking many small fish with each pass.  Eating didn't usually require so much forethought but it was interesting and he had enjoyed the challenge, hungry as he was.

There were a couple of small stars on the island.  Not like the flickering orange stars he sometimes saw, these were smaller, but fiercely brighter and did not flicker at all, like the little stars on the shadow.  He disregarded them as a mystery that neither concerned him, nor could he solve.

The forest on the island was still.  A soft breeze played through the tree tops occasionally, bringing him smells that were only dimly similar to other, more real smells he knew well.

He crept ashore, keeping himself low and moving slowly.

Moving through the trees was difficult.  They grew close together here and were tall and sturdy.  He could simply plow through them, he knew, but the noise would be great and he wanted quiet just now.  Slowly, carefully.

"You just hear something?"  One woman put her coffee down and peered through the windows of the lodge, examining the forest that encroached so closely on the house that she could only see the nearest trees.

"Wind." The other did not look up from her monitors.  They all showed scenes of the island and its lake, dark trunks and glistening water, and a couple of views of the shoreline with its gently lapping waves. The monitor in front of her, however, showed her current activity.  She was wandering the Internet.  The image on the screen was of an iguana with a marmoset incongruously riding its back.  That was weird, but she clicked past it without comment.  "Gets windy here, nights."

The first kept looking through the window but the proximity of the woods frustrated her.  She turned off the exterior lights, opened the door and stepped outside.

The susurrant rustle of the wind in the leaves, combined with the insistent cloud of mosquitoes that immediately surrounded her, convinced her that her companion was likely right.  She stepped back inside quickly, batting at the bugs and turning the field lights back on.

He watched as the stars on the ground winked out briefly, then back on.  That was strange but not as strange as the smell coming from deep within the forest.

He continued on until he came to the source of the smell.

It was an animal.

It smelled something, very vaguely, like a pink.  But that was only a very remote similarity, and he didn't give it much thought.

It was asleep.

Unlike most animals he encountered, this one was big enough to possibly be dangerous.  In the oceans he sometimes found large fish that tried to bite him, but they were very uncommon and even they couldn't get through his hide.  But this thing was far larger than those, even as big as some of the whales that didn't try to bite.  It was very large.

Not as big as himself, of course.  He wasn't very afraid of it, only wary.

He lay still, waiting for it to wake.  He didn't want to startle it, this strange thing that had somehow been birthed from a shadow.

"I thought I saw movement on the screen."

"Rolling over in his sleep?"

"No, not him.  Something else close by."

"Island's got a lot of raccoons and skunks.  You wanna go roust the skunk?"


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