Down by the River
By J. H. McKay
It came the night of the 15th, I’m sure of that now, just over a month ago as I sit here writing this down, trying to get what’s happened straight in my mind. I think it’s important that I try to remember as best I can what happened back then because that was the start of it and who knows how it will end up. This may even prove to be of use to others someday, if they can bring themselves to believe what it says.
It was on that night, sometime around midnight, that something woke me in my trailer with a start. I can be pretty sure now that it was an explosion over by the river that woke me but at the time I didn’t know what had done it.
You know how it is when you’re suddenly awakened from a deep sleep and you don’t quite know what is was that woke you? Well, that’s the way it was with me that night. All of a sudden I’m sitting bolt upright in my bed, my heart beating away a mile a minute, where a second ago I had been fast asleep. I didn’t quite know what it was that had woken me but I knew it must have been pretty significant to wake me like that. Even at 68 I’m still a pretty deep sleeper, always have been, and it takes a lot to wake me before morning.
So there I was sitting up in bed in the middle of the night in my little trailer in the woods listening for I didn’t know what. I can hear birds twittering and calling to each other in the woods down towards the river so I figure that whatever it was has woken them up too. It figures as well that it would have to be something pretty big to disturb both them and me. That’s enough to get me to roll out of bed with a groan, my knees creaking, and go over to the window that looks out on the dark trees between me and the river.
I can see nothing out of the ordinary. It’s a clear night with just a few wispy clouds in the sky above the dark silhouette of the treeline. There was some moonlight to see by but everything out there was as still as though I was looking at a photograph. Not even a breeze stirred the branches of the trees.
I started to get a chill standing there in my bare feet on the cold linoleum and I sure didn’t want to go out there if I didn’t have to. My main thought was maybe it was kids making mischief by playing tricks on the old codger living by himself in the woods. Or possibly somebody had run into trouble while motoring down the river; but you’d have to be pretty foolish to be doing it in the middle of the night along that winding stretch of the river with its sandbars and large rocks - some just barely submerged under the surface.
I stood there peering out for a few more minutes, getting colder and sleepier by the second, but I could see nothing unusual out there in the still night. Soon the birds quiet down and go back to sleep. It’s as though nothing had happened. I tell myself that whatever it was, if anything, it’s not worth bothering about if everything has quieted down again so quickly. With a sigh I decide to follow the birds’ example and turn to go back to my bed. If not for what happened the next morning I would have soon forgotten about the whole episode.
That morning after a shower and a single glass of O.J., anything more in the morning just makes me sluggish, I went for my habitual morning walk. It was just after eight, a cooly crisp early fall morning with the leaves just starting to turn colour. A few leaves were already beginning to fall here and there. I followed my usual meandering path through the woods in the direction of the river.
My property consists of a five acre woodlot lying between the river and the unpaved road running along its west side with about two acres of frontage along the river, but my walks don’t just stick to what I own. The land here’s not worth much, it’s too far from town and the trees are mostly a scrubby mixture of spruce and pine and assorted hardwoods like maples and poplars. The landowners on both sides of me hardly even know they own it and have basically just let it go. That suits me just fine as it leaves me free to walk where I want.
So there I was wandering along more or less aimlessly through the woods, not going anywhere in particular, just enjoying the morning. The dried brown leaves of previous falls and accumulations of dead needles crunched softly under my feet as I gradually meandered down to the river. I had completely forgotten about the mysterious interruption to my sleep of the previous night.
I had brought some fishing gear with me since I usually like to get a little fishing in on my morning walks during the season. Sometimes I even catch something for lunch. The fishing is usually pretty poor in the fall but you can get a nice big trout if you sneak up and drop it in just right.
With that in mind I began to sort of angle over to a favourite fishing hol that I had a hunch might be just the spot one of those big ones might be hunkered down in the midst of the cooler fall waters. When I think back on it I can see that the hole I was going for was in the general direction of where the sounds of the birds that had been disturbed from their slumber the previous night had come from. But I wasn’t thinking about that as I crept along, invigorated by the cool crispness of early fall, intent on catching my fish.
When I get to the spot, it’s sort of a jog in the bank where a current of faster moving water has split off from the main stream and eroded out a deep pool where the water eddies around and around, I start getting my rig all set as quietly as I can so as not to disturb any fish that might be lurking there. Just as I finish doing so however I notice that on the side of trees facing directly on the river along this stretch of the bank all the leaves look somehow burnt or singed.
Now that seemed kind of strange to me because for the leaves to be burned like that meant that the fire that had caused it would have to have been right on the river itself. In fact it looked to me like the centre of the conflagration, where it had been most intense, was about thirty or forty metres upstream of where I was. I could see that there the burning had gone back a couple of layers of leaves beyond the outermost ones, most of the outermost ones being completely burnt to a crisp.
Whatever had caused it had also to have mostly been on my side, that is to say the west side, of the river because I could see a more moderate singeing on the other bank directly opposite to where it was worst on my side and not much of an effect at all directly across the twenty odd metre width of the river from where I was. The severity of the singeing decreased fairly rapidly as you went downstream so that there was no effect apparent at all beyond forty metres from where I was-or about seventy or so metres from where it was most severe.
As I’m observing and taking all this in I remember the disturbance of the previous night and my first thought is that a boat going up or down the river must have caught fire and exploded. It would have had to have been a hell of an explosion though to have left visible traces for a radius of seventy metres or so on either side of the centre of it and you really can’t have craft much bigger than four metre launches travelling that part of the river. Anything bigger is going to run aground before long for sure.
I start to scan the river and banks for wreckage and, the possibility made me almost afraid to look, bodies. But I don’t see anything like that even though an exploding boat should have flung debris all over the place.
Then I look at the burnt leaves near me more closely and see that they don’t look so much burnt by fire as sort of blistered or sunburned. A lot of the leaves are only partially damaged and there are little bubbles along the line where the blistered or burnt part of the leaf meets the undamaged part. What it reminds me of, and now I really start to feel uneasy, are the radiation burns a friend of mine who was taking radiation therapy for a cancer tumour once had from the bursts of radiation that would inadvertently hit the healthy tissue surrounding the tumour. It was the same kind of angry, reddish brown splotching.
It’s been a pretty dry summer and it hadn’t rained during the night so you would expect that any kind of fire or explosion big enough to have caused burning along such an extensive stretch of the river would also have ignited fires among the trees along the bank. Fires that then would have spread. But that obviously hadn’t occurred.
However, I then thought, a sudden searing flash of gamma-ray radiation such as had happened on a much smaller scale to my friend during his cancer treatment might account for what I was seeing.
My gut instinct right then was to get the heck out of there. I don’t know much about radiation but I’ve heard about how affected areas can remain radioactive for years, poisoning anybody who stays around. But I was still curious and once I thought about it a little more the idea seemed kind of ludicrous.
I mean how was anybody or anything going to cause a big blast of radiation in this out of the way neck of the woods? Besides this was where I lived, where I planned to stay the rest of whatever years were left to me. If it did turn out to be as bad as that then what was left of my life was pretty much shot to hell anyways.
So I stayed and continued to look around. I couldn’t see any dead animals or fish around like you might expect if a large dose of radiation had been the cause. Then again I know radiation often takes a while, days or weeks even, to work its deadly effects. But there wasn’t even a scorched bird or squirrel lying around that had been caught in the initial blast of whatever it had been.
I looked again at the affected leaves and twigs, thinking that maybe they had been attacked by some kind of exotic disease or fungus I hadn’t seen before. But I was damned if any thing like that would look like this, affecting only the part of the tree facing the river and leaving the other side untouched. And I didn’t think that any kind of disease or fungus would reduce a leaf to a totally burnt crisp as the most severely affected ones had been. No, the whole pattern of the distribution of the burning pointed to whatever had caused this radiating outward from one central point on the river and diminishing rapidly in intensity the farther you got away from that point.
I started to move upstream to where the damage to the leaves and trees had been greatest with the intent of examining the shoreline as I went as closely as possible for any further clues as to what had happened. As I started to do this something caught the corner of my eye floating in the main eddy of the fishing hole. It looked sort of square shaped and dark, a lot like a water logged piece of wood, floating and bobbing in the current just below the surface.
It was only about seven or eight metres away so I took the fishing rod, its telescoping lengths of composite fibres can extend out as far as eight metres, put a three pronged spinner on the end of the line, and with the rod extended to its full length tried to gaff the object with a short cast. It should have been easy enough to do but damned if the hooks on the lure didn’t keep slipping off even when it looked like for sure I’d hooked an edge.
I start to think that maybe the thing isn’t made of wood after all. What’s more its colour seemed to be subtly changing; shifting with the hue of the surrounding water. When the sun was out and shining on the water it would have a light muddy brown colour and the object would appear to turn that same muddy brown so as to become almost invisible. When the sun went behind a cloud and the water darkened however the object matched it by darkening also to that same shade.
Of course trying to look at anything through moving water is tricky. I realized I had only caught sight of this thing by chance when the sun had suddenly come out from behind a cloud and glinted off its dark surface before it had a chance to blend back into the surrounding water.
I became more determined than ever to get a hold of it but now I’m a bit wary of it too. Maybe it’s alive, I think, some sort of turtle or something I haven’t seen before. It looks to be about a metre on each side but it’s hard to really tell through the eddying water, what with the way it appears to keep changing its shade of colouring, which might be just the result of the light hitting its protective colouration at different angles through the rushing water.
I’d heard of snapping turtles getting to be at least that big but I’ve never seen one that big around here. If that’s what it was the last thing I wanted to do was to get real close to it. But by now I knew I would never rest until I found out for sure.
Trying to gaff it wasn’t working, so even though I hate getting my feet wet I waded in a few feet and tried to steer it towards me by nudging it with the end of the fishing rod. But the object was bobbing around too much and the rod was too flexible to allow me to get any significant leverage. The damn thing was caught in the whirlpool of the eddy, or perhaps was resisting my efforts to direct it, because it just kept dipping and turning in the water while seeming to edge slowly away from me.
I kept wading in closer and closer to it, a foot at a time, ready to bolt back to shore the moment it did something I didn’t like the look of. But it didn’t do anything else, just continued to waver and glimmer under the surface in a way that made it hard to see and sort of hurt my eyes while it bobbed in the eddy’s current.
I started to swear as the cold water seeped into my crotch and then rose past it. I kept going, farther and deeper into the stream, but still I couldn’t get the accursed thing to come over to me. It was like it was purposefully trying to avoid me, teasing me by just staying out of my reach.
Considering what has happened since I think that is exactly what it was doing. It may not have been conscious or fully operational at the time but probably some sort of low level defence mechanism was operating as well as it could in a weakened state to keep the thing hidden and away from potential threats. Or maybe it was just some kind of protective instinct, like the way a chameleon changes colour to blend into the background.
By the time I got up to within a couple of feet of it I was seriously asking myself why in hell I was doing this. The water was now swirling up around my chest and I was having trouble keeping my balance. One slip and under I’d go. I remembered stories I’d heard about people drowning in holes just like this one.
The thing kept spinning and bobbing away from me as I now tried to prod it towards me with the butt end of the fishing rod. I didn’t want to actually touch it until I got it closer to shore. I was still afraid it might suddenly bite or claw me if I got too close though I could see neither a head nor limbs of any sort on it.
Unfortunately it wasn’t giving me any choice in the matter. I retracted the rod into the handle and threw it onto shore, almost losing my balance in the rushing water as I did so, and wished I’d brought a good thick pair of leather work gloves with me. I took two small hesitant steps forward, carefully keeping my balance in the swirling current, took a deep breath, and with as much firmness and nerve as I could muster, put both arms around it.
My first impression once I had put my hands on it was-Hey! This thing’s made of metal! There was also a slight tingling sensation against my bare hands, like you would get from an electrified wire fence on very low voltage, but that soon faded away. Otherwise the feel of it under my hands was of a hard but kind of dimpled surface like the grain on a basketball or football. For an instant it almost felt as though it were making one last effort to bob away from me but that may have been just a current of water catching hold of it for a moment. After that I tightened my hold on it and it lay still in my arms as I slogged back to shore. It couldn’t have weighed more than two or three kilos.
As soon as I got on dry land I put it down and examined it while getting my breath back. Damned if the thing didn’t start changing it’s shade of colouring again! I had laid it by a patch of parched looking knee high grass growing above the bank and almost immediately it had started to match and blend in with the greenish brown of the grass.
The colour change made me wary of it again. I nudged it cautiously with a water logged foot. I half expected it to suddenly sprout legs and run off or something now that it was on dry land but it made no movement at all.
I shook my head and blinked hard. Maybe, I told myself, its changing to a greenish brown colour was just the result of its drying off in the sun, things were often a different colour wet than when dry. And it had been hard to tell what colour it had really been while underwater. I reasoned that my ageing eyes and an overactive imagination could have contributed to a false impression that it was deliberately changing colour in an effort to hide itself.
I gathered up my courage and picked it up again. It didn’t do anything-just lay there in my arms. I carried it off, squishing in my boots and shivering in my wet clothes, through the woods back to the trailer.
I made it back home without further incident and by the time I got there I was beginning to feel pretty silly about the whole thing. I had gone to all that trouble to fish out of the river what now looked to be an inert, greenish brown lump of nondescript, unidentifiable, river flotsam.
Once inside I dumped it on the floor beside the table I use for a desk and started to get out of my wet clothes. The trailer is basically one big room except for a small washroom so I was easily able to keep an eye on it as I stripped and changed but there appeared to really be no need for any caution.
All my earlier fears and imaginings about exploding boats, radiation, and strange creatures in the river seemed overblown and ridiculous to me now. The apparent burning and blistering I had seen on the leaves was probably just the result of some kind of leaf mould I told myself. As I tried to recall just how the blighted leaves had looked they somehow now seemed more innocuous than when I had first seen them. Too bad I hadn’t remembered to bring a couple of them back with me I thought. But it didn’t really matter, I said to myself, I could always go back to look some other time.
As for whatever had disturbed me out of my sleep the previous night, I rationalized that must have been just some little thing I had exaggerated out of all proportion as a result of being wakened suddenly out of a sound slumber. Surely, I told myself, if something like a boat being lost had happened on the river last night I would have seen more signs of it this morning, and all I had really seen was some odd looking leaves and twigs and this thing, whatever it was, I had plucked out of the river.
After changing into dry clothes I realized it wasn’t even quite ten o’clock yet. Normally on a day like that I would have slowly wandered along the river fishing till about noon. I had been planning to go to town that day for groceries and a few other things after lunch but I decided to get a head start on the rest of the day and go right then. As I was heading out the door I glanced at my newly salvaged possession sitting on the floor and with a shake of the head laughed at myself for having gone to all that trouble to obtain it.
However I still couldn’t get my little adventure of that morning completely out of my mind. After I got out on the west side road going towards the bridge that crosses over to the east side and town I let the autopilot take over the driving of my aging 2010 model pickup. Just before crossing the bridge I slid over to the passenger seat and peered upstream towards my place as I crossed over.
I could see nothing unusual on or along the river as it flowed placidly towards and under the bridge. It was its usual light muddy brown colour, the water level a little low as was normal for that time of year, but a pretty sight all the same as it wound its way through the predominate green of the early fall forest. It was going to be a few weeks yet before the leaves really started to take on their fall colours.
I could see no unusual discolouration or apparent burning of the foliage along this stretch of the river like what I had seen that morning. If some kind of disease or fungus had been responsible for what I had seen by my place it obviously hadn’t spread to here yet.
The autopilot turned south on the main road heading into town and by the time I entered the supermarket parking lot my mind had turned to what was on the grocery shopping list. That’s where it stayed until I got to the checkout aisle.
There weren’t many people in the store at that time on a weekday so only the first two checkout aisles were operating. Like at most large stores cashiers became extinct there about a decade ago when they discovered they could get away with only accepting payment by credit or debit card. But they still usually have someone stationed at the first aisle, which is also the customer service counter, to deal with occasional problems like invalid or damaged payment cards or prices registered by the scanner that the customer believes to be incorrect. Having a human being there also serves as a last, if largely symbolic, line of defence against the occasional shoplifter who’s managed to depolarize the tiny digestible security tags imbedded in whatever he or she is trying to steal.
As I had anticipated Anne Robinson was the store employee stationed on the first aisle so I made sure to go through there so as to get a chance to talk to her. Anne’s a tall redhead in her mid forties that I got to know one night in one of our town’s two drinking establishments. Being more than twenty years her senior and a life long bachelor I immediately developed a crush on her that I hope isn’t too obvious. We’ve never been on a date or anything like that but I never miss a chance to talk to her. In fact I sort of time my visits to the supermarket to when I think she’ll be working.
So when it got to be my turn to stick my debit card in the slot and start swiping my purchases over the scanner I began to exchange pleasantries with her.
“Hi Anne,” I said, “how’s it going?”
“Oh fine I guess, Vern,” she said with a bright smile. “How are you?” Whether the smile was really for me or whether she was just being polite to a customer I wasn’t sure but I would take whatever I could get.
“Oh pretty good I guess, about the same as ever,” I said. “You’re certainly looking good today.” Actually, since she was wearing the same store uniform she always wore when she worked and didn’t have any special make-up on or have her hair done in any new way, she looked pretty much the same as she always did when working. Even so, she still looked pretty good to me.
“Oh, well thank you. So are you,” she exclaimed as she reached out to touch me lightly on the arm. “By the way, I hear you had some excitement down your way last night.”
“Eh? I did?” I said, confused by her sudden change of subject.
“Why yes, you mean you don’t know about it? You must go to bed early, she chided.
“Know about what?” I said, puzzled.
“A whole lot of people saw it,” she went on. “A meteor or asteroid or something went down out your way last night. It made a huge noise and flash of light. You mean you didn’t see or hear anything last night?”
“Uh, well yeah, something did wake me up around twelve last night,” I said guardedly. “About what time was this?”
“I think it was about that time,” she said, nodding her head. “Jimmy Martin saw and heard it and I was talking to him about it earlier this morning. He lives out by your way, doesn’t he? And, I mean, a whole lot of people out your way saw it, and even some people here in town saw it.”
“Yeah,” I said, nodding back at her, “the Martins live about five klicks up the river from me. And a lot of other people saw it too, eh? Well, it’s the first anybody’s said anything to me about it. Does anybody know where this thing hit?”
“No-o-o, I don’t think so,” she said uncertainly, “but I heard that the meteorology station at Port Danby is going to send some people to try to find it. And I think that some people are going to try to find it on their own. You didn’t see anybody looking for it around your place or when you were coming into town did you?”
“No,” I said, “I didn’t. But then it may still be pretty early for people to be out looking already.” I hesitated, it was on the tip of my tongue to start telling her about what had happened earlier that morning; about the strangely burned leaves I had seen, about my plucking of the whatever it was from the river, and so on. But I didn’t quite know where to start and the truth of it is I was just a bit embarrassed by then about the whole thing
I was pretty sure the object I had taken from the river was not a rock like a meteorite would be, it had been floating after all, and I was afraid if I told her all about my wading into the river after a piece of floating debris and my fears of radiation and giant snapping turtles and so on, it would just seem to her like the confused rambling of a semi-senile old man. So I kept my mouth shut and didn’t say anything to her about it.
Besides, by that time Anne was getting meaningful stares from the people in line behind me. Rather than clog up the line with more of my chit chat I bid her good-day and went on my way.
Across the road at the Mini Mall I got more or less the same story. Artie at the hardware store had heard all about the meteorite as had Tony at Neilson’s Sports & Outdoors and both said they were thinking of going out and trying to find it themselves. A few other people I met around town said the same thing though none of them had actually seen it. The kid at the garage who tanked up the pickup and did a quick diagnostic on its computer claimed to have seen it though and was full of how spectacular it had been and how he was going to go out and find it just as soon as he got off work.
I thought the kid might actually do it. Most of the others I was pretty sure would never get around to it but I still didn’t look forward to even a few people poking around where I lived. I decided not to tell anybody about what I had seen and done that morning. I didn’t see any point in it and any mention of scorched leaves by the riverbank would just encourage the meteorite seekers to snoop around for something that was probably harder to find than the proverbial needle in a haystack.
As I crossed over the bridge going home a helicopter came sweeping down along the river. It was flying just above the treetops and obviously looking for something in the river. When I think about it now it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense that it would be looking that closely at that stretch of the river since all accounts had the meteorite coming down in an area farther upstream. Even if by some small chance it had landed right in the river you would expect a meteorite to sink to the bottom, not float downstream.
Some sort of craft that had deliberately crash landed in the river however might be a different story. Perhaps somebody somewhere had at least suspected that what had come down that night might be something more than your usual run of the mill meteorite and had decided not to let the general public know about those suspicions.
However, at the time I wasn’t thinking such fantastic thoughts. The helicopter was a nondescript grey colour with number and letter markings that I couldn’t make sense of but I just figured that it must have come from the meteorology station and was now making its way along the river back towards Port Danby.
It must have come back not long afterwards because all that day I heard and saw that helicopter, and another almost identical one that joined it, buzzing around the area surrounding the river by where I live. I never actually saw anyone on the ground searching but as the afternoon wore on I would hear shouts in the distance and the faint sounds of people trampling through the underbrush.
I thought briefly of taking a look around myself but I really didn’t see much point to it. I’d wait until the meteorite hunters all went home, I told myself, and then if there was really anything out there I’d find it myself in my own good time.
In any event the helicopters left after that one day and I never ran across anybody looking on foot on my walks through the woods in the days that followed. I’m pretty sure there were a few people out there for a couple of days but they seemed to shy away from each other and me, maybe because they wanted to be the first ones to find it and didn’t want to share their discovery with anybody else.
Some of the searchers must have noticed the peculiarly burned or blistered leaves that I had and may have made a possible connection with the meteorite they figured they were looking for. If so I never heard anyone offer an explanation for them or even any mention of them at all. Whatever it was that was the cause of them, and I have a pretty good idea now of what it was, all traces of what had happened disappeared within a few weeks with the falling leaves of autumn.
That evening on the local news they interviewed an astronomer from some university who said that it had indeed probably been a meteorite that had come down here but that it had probably been too small to survive entry into the earth’s atmosphere as anything bigger than a fist sized piece of rock. When asked whether something that small could have caused the loud noise and streaking burst of light that people had reported he shrugged and said that eyewitness accounts of meteorite sightings were often unreliable and that anyway the area in the vicinity of the reports had been aerially surveyed and no evidence of a sizeable meteorite impact had been found.
During the news spot they showed pictures of meteorites that people had found and after the spot was over I had the computer recall and magnify the images on the wall viewer that covers most of the trailers back wall. The meteorites shown were all basically misshapen chunks of rock ranging in size from around four metres in diameter to about the size of an irregularly shaped bowling ball though they had said that most meteorites were actually much smaller than that. When I walked up to the viewer to get an even closer look I could see they all had a kind of semi-melted look to them. None of them looked anything like what I had found in the river that morning.
Before going to bed I went over to where it still sat on the floor beside the desk and gave it a nudge with my foot. It slid across the floor a few centimetres, a lot lighter it seemed to me than if it were solid rock or metal. Whatever it was, I felt certain it was no meteorite. Nor did it any longer appear to me to be something that might possibly be, or had once been, alive. Its squarish shape was not completely regular and it had rounded corners but it now seemed to me to be plainly some sort of manufactured object with its even, dimpled, metallic like surface.
It had however very subtly changed the shading of its colouration again. So subtly that at the time I wasn’t even sure if it had happened. It’s only with the benefit of hindsight that I can say with a lot of certainty that it did change. It had become a very nondescript medium brown colour that matched almost perfectly that of the desk beside which it sat. The effect though wasn’t to render it unseen but rather to make it appear as though it belonged there; as though it and the desk were part of a matching set of furniture. Though it had no obvious function it just somehow now looked like it was a natural part of of the trailer’s furnishings.
As I said, so subtly and gradually had it achieved this effect that I had to rub my eyes and think hard about what shade of colour it had been before. I remembered how when I had set it on the ground after plucking it from the river it had appeared to take on the colour of the grass growing on the bank. But on retrospection I thought maybe that had been more of a brown than green colour and I had been uncertain then if it had really changed shade or not. Or perhaps a further browning was just the result of its continuing to dry out, it had still felt slightly damp when I had last put it down and I had no real idea of how long it had been in the river.
I’ve heard of special camouflage paints and applications that cause whatever is treated with them to blend into the surrounding environment, sometimes to the point of practical invisibility. It has something to do with so- called “intelligent” materials that “read” information from the photons that bombard them from all around. That sort of thing is mostly used by the military though; maybe, I thought, this is some sort of cast off or lost piece of military equipment, like a homing beacon or a buoy. I’ve often been amazed by the kinds of things that sometimes turn up in the river.
Whatever it was it seemed to me then to be harmless enough. I yawned and turned to go to bed, telling myself I’d put it out in the shed the next day.
* * *
Almost a month later, yesterday in fact, I slid my key card through the door lock and punched in the entry code while telling Lucy to hush up and be quiet. Lucy however continued to bark impatiently, her tail wagging furiously.
We’d been out duck hunting all day and it was just starting to turn dark. Since it was our last day hunting together Lucy was due back at the kennel I’d rented her from in a couple of hours but that gave me more than enough time to stop off home on the way to unload my gear and get out of my hunting togs.
Lucy and I have established a partnership that goes back three years now; for three or four days each fall I rent out her services from her owners and we go duck hunting together. She loves her job and would do it just for the thrill of it but she knows well enough by now that she can expect some treats once we get home as a reward for a good day’s shooting and retrieving. Which is why she was so impatient to get inside.
The indicator light flashed green and I turned the knob and pushed the door open. Lucy burst into the trailer ahead of me and made a quick circuit of the inside, sniffing under the bed and in all the corners in the way that dogs often do.
If her purpose in doing this had been to check the trailer for any intruders I can’t say she did a very thorough job. For as soon as I got in I went “What the-!,” took another wide-eyed stare as my eyes adjusted to the brightly lit interior, and then just stood there for a few long seconds, too stunned by what I was seeing to react.
When I did react my first move was to rush outside to get the twelve gauge out of the pickup. “Lucy!” I shouted as I loaded shells into the gun with fumbling fingers, “Lucy, get the hell out of there!” Lucy came to the open door, her black shape silhouetted against the lighted interior, her tail still wagging vigorously When she saw the gun in my hands she immediately misinterpreted my intentions and with a yelp of joy come bounding out and started jumping up and down in front of me. “No, Lucy, no!” I shouted angrily. “Don’t be silly, we can’t go hunting again at night. Get down girl!” Lucy paid absolutely no attention to what I was saying and continued to leap and prance with excitement as I pushed past her and peered around the doorjamb into the trailer.
The thing had hatched. That is about as well as I can describe it, though it had left no pieces of shell lying around. Perhaps metamorphosed would be a better word.
I had been meaning for a couple of weeks to take out the unidentified piece of flotsam I had rescued from the river and either store it in the toolshed or throw it away but I had never quite got around to doing it. The thing hadn’t taken up much space just sitting against the wall by the desk and had just sort of blended into the background, the way an unremarkable picture on the wall or a chair you never use sitting in a corner will. Even though in a sense you see such objects every day at some point you fail to even notice they’re there. Well this thing had become like that for me, which I now suspect-no, I’m sure of it-was the result of a deliberate effort on its part.
But now it had metamorphosed into a sort of lump that had plastered itself against the wall around a spot where I knew was an electrical outlet. It looked to be about the same size as before but had gone from being a solid block to a gelatinous looking blob. It was a glowing reddish brown colour and I could just kind of sense it sucking the energy out of that wall socket with every pulsating throb that rippled across its surface. It reminded me of a leech sucking blood from the underbelly of a fish. It even seemed to be swelling up a bit with the energy it was taking in like a leech would with blood.
The wall socket wasn’t the only thing it had gotten into though, it had also gotten into the computer. I had left my computer, which is just a basic 25 gig wireless keyboard that I bought brand new when I first retired a few years ago (the salesperson had said I could get it cheap because it represented the ultimate utilization of a silicon chip technology that was soon going to be obsolete ) lying where I usually leave it on the desk in front of the small flexi- screen I use as the primary monitor. When I had first looked in as the lights came on I had clearly seen the light reflecting off of what looked like tendrils so gossamer thin that they reminded me of spider webbing extending from the creature to the expansion slots in the side of the keyboard.
Whatever it was doing with the computer it must have just been finishing, or perhaps it thought it could wait for another time, because as soon as the lights came on it quickly withdrew the tendrils. They seemed to retract right into its body, it was hard to see for sure, after a slight hesitation and quick whipping away motion that seemed to me to be almost guiltily self-conscious, like that of a child suddenly caught with its hand in the cookie jar.
Lucy had hardly taken any notice of the thing at all; just a cursory sniff at it when she had made her initial circuit of the room. I think maybe that reassured me a little as I peered inside the trailer, trying to show as little of myself as possible around the edge of the doorframe, unable to decide what to do next.
Lucy started to bark again and look at me expectantly, her tail still wagging to beat the band, and that distracted me further. “Shss-not now girl,” I hissed urgently to her. “I’ll get you your treats later!” My tone of voice put her off a bit and she looked around, puzzled about what I was so concerned about.
A few minutes stretched by as I remained motionless, the shotgun clutched tightly against my chest, but nothing seemed to be happening. The thing just stayed where it was, plastered up against the wall over the electrical socket. After a few minutes I took a deep breath and took a couple of tentative steps inside, peering at it to get a closer look. It appeared to have lost or absorbed its formerly hard exterior and now had a soft, almost fleshy, look to it. But there was no way I was going to touch it to confirm that impression.
“What the hell is this thing?” I muttered to myself as I took another couple of cautious steps towards it, ready to bolt away at the least sign of danger. I got to within about a metre of it and leaned over to peer down at it. It was just a sort of blob, about the size of a large footstool. It hadn’t done a thing since I had first come in except retract those tendrils but it seemed to me as if it had darkened in colour-become a deeper, pulsating, reddish brown.
Lucy came bounding up beside me to see what was taking my attention away from her and before I could say or do anything pressed her nose right up against it. She looked at me as if to say “C’mon, there’s nothing here worth bothering about, now give me my treats.”
“Lucy!” I hissed, “Get away from there!” I grabbed her by the collar and pulled her back. I’m not sure what I was going to do next; probably would have poked at it with the twelve gauge to see if it would react, maybe eventually gone and got some help, but it was at that moment that things really took a turn.
“Hello,” a voice said, “please do not try to harm me. I mean you no harm.” It was so unexpected that for a moment it didn’t even really register. Then I realized; somebody had said something to me, and I spun around expecting to see that somebody there. There was nobody. The voice had definitely sounded like it was coming from inside the trailer. Really spooked now, I looked over at the half ajar door to the washroom and figured somebody must be hiding in there. I approached the dark doorway with my heart in my throat and the shotgun at the ready.
“Who-who’s there?” I said, trying to keep my voice from quavering. “C- come out of there,” I commanded in the most authoritative tone I could muster.
Lucy hadn’t reacted at all to the voice I had heard, which maybe should have tipped me off since dogs hardly ever react to the sounds coming from electronic audio equipment. She did however react to the tense tone in my voice and began to growl, the hair rising on her back, as she followed my lead and pointed towards the shadowy dark of the washroom.
“Hello,” said the voice again, which now seemed somehow vaguely familiar. “I am over here...by the wall. I mean you no harm. Please do not try to hurt me.”
By the wall? I look around quickly and the only thing I see out of the ordinary is the blob. The blob!-I think wildly. But it can’t be! But that voice! I know it!, I realize. It sounds just like the voice of Bert Sniderman, local evening news vid anchor.
But what would Bert Sniderman be doing here? It’s got to be some kind of recording of his voice I think, or a computerized simulation of it, and that would mean...no wonder Lucy didn’t react to it!
I whirl around again. I’ve never been very good at telling the direction in which sounds are coming from but it seems to me now as if the voice had come from the speakers embedded in the wall viewer. It had said it was “by the wall”. Could it be?, I wondered, hardly daring to think it because it seemed so preposterous. Could the blob be talking to me through the speakers using Bert Sniderman’s voice?
“Hello?” I say, feeling both very spooked and a bit ridiculous standing there talking to a knee high blob that looked more like a monstrously huge, reddish brown, garden slug than anything else. “Who’s talking to me?”
There followed an expectant pause that seemed to stretch out almost forever before I heard again Bert Sniderman’s reassuring baritone, “It would be...difficult...for me to accurately convey to you who I am. I repeat, I intend no harm to you or your companion. You would gain nothing by attempting to harm me.”
“But you are...you are the thi-...that’s you up against the wall there?” I pointed a slightly trembling finger at the thing. “Is that right?”
“Yes, that is where I...my...consciousness presently... resides,” it said slowly, as if searching for the right words to accurately convey what meant to say and finally settling for the best ones it could find.
“But...but you’re speaking to me from the viewer using...using Bert Sniderman’s voice,” I said, stating the obvious.
“Yes, after having examined your...device, your...computer, I am now... interfacing...communicating with it and its...peripherals. I did not alter or harm in any way the devices.
“I meant no offence in using the vocal characteristics of Bert Sniderman. The net...effect of the characteristics of that individuals voice and of your... familiarity with it was...calculated...estimated to be the most...effective in... interfacing...communicating with you of all the individual voices in your device’s...database. If you wish I can select among others, including your own, in the database or-.”
“No-no,” I said quickly, “it’s okay the way it is.” The last thing I wanted was for the thing to be talking to me using my own voice. That would’ve made me even more unnerved than I already was.
There was an uncomfortable pause, as though it was waiting for me to make the next move. “So,” I said at last as I tried to gather my wits together, “you can talk; and hear as well obviously, and I guess you can see me as well.” I looked at the large wall viewer where I knew somewhere, I had forgotten exactly where, were located the microscopically sized cameras that come as standard equipment on all viewers.
“Yes, I can...sense...see along the range of the electro-magnetic spectrum allowed by the...capabilities of the camera peripherals.” I think it saw an opportunity to carry the conversation in the direction it wanted because it now said “I would like to continue to interface with your computer and its peripherals. It will not impede in any way your continued use of the devices and in return I can...significantly...increase...improve the...efficiency and the .capabilities of the devices. That is...if you will allow me to remain here... undisturbed by...others..in...on...your...property.”
The request, coming in the affably familiar tones of Bert Sniderman seemed, despite the weirdness of it all, somehow not like a completely outrageous thing that I could just flat out automatically turn down. The halting pace in which it had been delivered just made it sound all the more like an earnest, even pitiable, appeal for assistance and refuge. After all, a guy would just have to instinctively feel like an absolute heel not to want to help out such a likeably decent sounding person as Bert Sniderman.
Only this wasn’t really Bert Sniderman. I didn’t know who or what it was, but in the absence of having a huge drooling space monster confronting me, it was hard not to get lulled into a kind of calm complacency. The placid reassuring voice was having an almost hypnotically calming effect on me. As though there was really nothing extraordinary going on at all.
I tried to remind myself I really didn’t know who or what I was dealing with and tried not to acquiesce too easily to what it wanted. “I don’t know,” I temporized, “I don’t like people fooling with my computer. Whenever someone says how for free they’ll fix it up or do something to make it work better if I’ll just let them get at it, they always seem to end up gumming it up and I have to spend hours undoing whatever they did to it just to get it working the way it did before. And besides,” I added, “you should have asked my permission before you got into it in the first place.”
There was another silence then, as though it had to take a moment to fully comprehend what I had just said. Lucy whined impatiently for her treats and wagged her tail appealingly at me. Finally it replied; “I apologize for the...transgression, but it was the only way I could obtain enough...data...information to enable me to communicate effectively with you. If it is what you want, I will not alter in any way the existing...configuration of the devices, and, as I said, my use of the devices would not in any way impede your own use of them.”
It paused and I had a sense of it expectantly awaiting my reply. “We-e-ll,” I drawled, casting about for a reason to turn it down, “I still don’t know. I mean, I don’t even know wha-who you are.” For some reason I couldn’t refer to it as a “what” rather than as a “who” even though that was my first inclination. I guess I was afraid I would offend it or something. “Most people,” I continued, “would say that I’m crazy to be even standing here talking to you like this. That I should have high-tailed it out of here the second I saw you and called in the cops or..or...somebody. I mean wha-who are you anyway, some...some runaway piece of military or corporate AI or something?”
I couldn’t bring myself to add “or alien from outer space?” Just the phrase itself seemed too much like something out of a comic book or the B grade sci- fi movies I used to watch as a kid, and too associated with cults and cranks, for me to bring myself to actually using it. There was in the back of my mind the suspicion, maybe even a conviction that still hasn’t completely gone away, that this had to be some kind of elaborate hoax. That somewhere nearby in the woods there was going to be a gaggle of giggling teens with some sort of transmitter, the boys trying to impress the girls with their expertise with the latest hi-tech toy, having a blast rousting the old guy living alone in the woods and making him believe he was being visited by an ET. Well, I wasn’t quite ready to fall hook, line, and sinker for that one. Not quite then anyways.
“Who I am and where I came from would be difficult, perhaps impossible, to explain to you. It would make no difference to the...essentials of the present situation if you did fully comprehend. It is perhaps best for...your own sake that you know as little about me as is necessary.” It was getting noticeably more smooth and confident in its manner of speaking as it went on and was pausing less now to search for words. “What is important is that I am alone and far from...home and help from...others like me. I need to stay here and have access to your devices if I am ever to contact them and return to where I came from. I am asking for your help.”
It was obviously learning fast about how to deal with humans; or at least the gullible soft touches like me. That had been a nice touch-that last plea for help. It was an appeal to my better nature that put the onus on me and made it difficult for me in all conscience to turn it down. Still, I was reluctant. I guess I just didn’t want the responsibility and whatever vague undefined risk there might be attached to giving shelter to it.
“Why me?” I said. “I mean, I still don’t see why I just shouldn’t tell somebody in authority, the government or whatever, about you. And why shouldn’t you want me to? They would be far better able to help you with equipment and whatever assistance you might need than I can.” I thought I had it there; if it really meant no harm as it said then why shouldn’t it just go to whoever was best able to give it what it wanted?
“You have everything I need,” it replied. “If I go to others, if my presence becomes known to other humans, particularly to those in positions of...power ...authority it would greatly...complicate the situation. The ultimate... consequences of the inevitable...tendency to attempt to monopolize and control access to me and the technologies I potentially represent by whichever of the competing...power blocs in your society I went to, and of its using its position to gain...dominance over its rivals, and their reaction to this possibility, is difficult to...predict with...great precision. I would predict however, based on the analysis I have been able to do of your...civilization from the data resources available to me through access to your devices and this world’s... communications net, that the net consequences are not likely to be beneficial to either human society as a whole or to myself. Regardless of which...major organizational entity I went to, helping me would be...subordinate to its own interests and objectives with little consideration given to the consequences for humanity as a whole. By remaining here, unknown to all other humans, I can much better control the...diffusion and consequences of any...technology transfer that may occur.
“If you...regardless of what I have said, attempt to inform others of my existence I will leave here and few, if any, will believe you. I have absorbed and stored enough energy to allow me to...at least do that.” As if to demonstrate it levitated a few centimetres off the floor, enough for me to clearly see the space between the floor and it.
Then came the real trick. Inside of a second it just faded away into nothing! One moment it was there and the next all I could see was empty space where it had been by the wall, the now unobstructed electrical outlet plainly visible.
As I said I’ve heard of various kinds of hi-tech camouflage systems that use optical sensors to analyse the surroundings and play tricks with the visible light spectrum to enable people or things to achieve near invisibility by blending into the background, but I’ve never heard of anything as good as this was.
There was a perfectly clear space where it had just been, no wavering or shimmering in the air or obscuring blind spots, just nothing at all. It didn’t make itself more difficult to see, it completely disappeared.
Moments before I’d almost laughed out loud when it had referred to “this world’s communications net” and “human society.” They had sounded like stock phrases out of some science fiction fantasy, clumsy hints that I was talking with an ET. Just what you might expect from young teen-age hoaxers.
But after it pulled off that disappearing act I felt a chill run clear down my spine to the pit of my bowels. Despite myself the first real doubts began to creep into my mind. I don’t think that chill has completely left me yet. At that moment it became clear to me that if this was a hoax of some kind it’s a hell of a sophisticated one that uses tricks I know nothing about. As if she smelled my fear Lucy growled and peered around as though searching for hidden prowlers.
I advanced on the spot where the thing had been and cautiously waved the barrel of the shotgun through the now apparently empty space. The barrel moved smoothly through the air - there was nothing there. “Wha-where’d you go?” I stammered. “Ar-are you still here?”
“Yes, I am still here,” replied the voice of Bert Sniderman, which as best as I could tell was still coming from the viewer speakers. As if to reassure me it quickly did a reverse fade to reappear in its old spot against the foot of the wall. The exact same spot where only a moment before I’d passed the barrel of the shotgun with out hitting a thing. “I only wished to demonstrate that I have the ability to come and go as I please while avoiding detection.”
There was another pause as it evidently waited for me to say something. Not quite sure just what I wanted to do I tried to avoid committing myself to anything too quickly. “So-o-o,” I said at last, “you just want to stay here and use some of my equipment to help you get back home. And you won’t inconvenience or interfere with me in any way. Is that right?”
“That is correct,” it promptly replied. “I will need to continue to receive energy from your generating system for a time but my energy requirements will be relatively slight and it will not restrict your own energy usage in any way. You will be doing a...humanitarian...favour for a...fellow...being in need. I will be very...grateful.”
Well,” I said grudgingly, not seeing what else I could do for the time being, I guess it’ll be alright. For a whole anyway.” As I write it down I’m both kind of ashamed of how mean and petty I was about it and aghast that I actually let the thing persuade me to let it stay.
Despite the impressive disappearing act it put on I still can’t get my head completely around the idea that this is all on the up and up. It still just seems too incredible to me. Maybe too I just instinctively resented its appeal for help, thought of it as a form of moral blackmail to try to get me to do something I really didn’t want to be troubled with, when the truth is that I’m afraid of committing myself and taking on the responsibility and risk for whatever consequences may arise from my aiding and sheltering this thing. Part of me would just rather not get involved. I wonder if everybody put in this kind of situation has the same kind of feelings.
“I thank you,” it said. “Sometime in the future I...hope to be able to repay you for your...kindness.”
“Oh, that’s okay,” I said, hastily self-conscious, “you don’t have to do that. I’m just glad to be of help, I guess.” It didn’t say anything more after that but I continued to watch it for a while as it lay there against the wall, softly glowing.
Lucy whined and wagged her tail hopefully when I finally looked down at my side at her. “Okay girl,” I said with a sigh as I put down the shotgun and walked over to the fridge, “now we’ll get whatever we’ve got coming to us.”
How this is all going to end up I don’t know. I guess I have no choice but to sit tight and hope for the best. The worst thing is that there’s nobody I can talk to or tell about it. Anybody I told would just think I was crazy. So instead I’m sitting here in the pickup, in the parking lot behind the coffee shop across from the strip mall, writing it all down in the hope that maybe that’ll help calm me down. I have to do something or I feel I’ll go nuts, if I haven’t already.
I guess the best place to start is early yesterday afternoon around two. I had just gotten home from town and was bringing in my purchases, mostly groceries, from the truck outside. As I brought in the last two bags I stamped my feet on the mat just inside the door to shake off the remaining bits of snow I hadn’t already knocked off my boots on the steps outside and put them down on the floor besides the others. I brushed flakes of snow from my shoulders as I started to take off my boots and jacket and glanced over at the now familiar sight of my boarder.
That’s sort of how I’ve come to think of him (“him” because he continues to use Bert Sniderman’s voice to speak), as a boarder rather than as a visitor or guest because he’s been with me for more than four months now and because, in his way, he’s more than paid his way. Like in the way he’s vastly increased the efficiency of my solar and wind power systems.
When I had first looked into the possibility that living out there might be my most affordable and amenable retirement option, I had known, having grown up and lived a substantial part of my life around here, that most of the landowners out there would be willing to sell me a small lot of the near worthless scrub woodland for whatever they could get for it. One of the reasons the land around there could be had so cheaply though was because the power company didn’t have a line running along the unpaved road that gave access to it. Paying to have a power line run in would have cost an arm and a leg and the service would have been unreliable and prone to interruptions, particularly in winter. So instead of that I installed a few of the best solar panels I could afford on the roof of the trailer and put up a small wind tower. Add that to a fuel cell and an adequate supply of gasoline for those times when there’s not enough sunshine or wind and I’ve managed to make do. There’s a wood stove as well that I use on really cold nights but I try to avoid cutting too deeply into the lot’s small stands of trees.
I have no idea what my new boarder has actually done to the solar and wind systems or how much electricity is now being generated, when I quizzed him on it he merely said that the system’s efficiency had been improved by as much as was necessary and that the amount generated varied according to requirements, but I do know that since I told him he could stay I haven’t had to use the fuel cell even once, no matter how many windless cloudy days there are. There always seems to be more than enough electrical power for both my own use and whatever he’s using for himself.
After seeing what he had been able to do with the power system I decided to let him make adjustments to the whole of my computer systems and all of the peripherals connected to it.
It’s a funny thing, but just in the past month or so the long awaited breakthroughs allowing the practical application of microscopically sized quantum molecular and DNA based nano computer chips, with their vastly greater computational speeds and memory capacities, have reportedly been finally achieved. According to the newsvids, which have been hyping the story to the max, the new chips have a huge range of potential applications that range from the designing and building of more efficient engines and vehicles of all types, to more accurately predicting the weather, to the manufacture of tiny nano machines that can do everything from mining small underground mineral deposits without environmental damage to repairing damaged brain cells. There’s also been lots of hype about how if the potential of these new chips is fulfilled it could be the catalyst needed to boost the global economy out of years of stagnation.
All that may or may not come to pass, and they say the new chips should be on the market by the fall, but I have a sneaking suspicion my boarder has already made me the first person on Earth to have that kind of processing capability on their home system. What happened yesterday just confirms that suspicion but I already knew from the way everything worked with an almost supernatural speed and smoothness once he was done enhancing it that he had done something really extraordinary.
For example, I have the cheapest connection to the net you can get; it’s practically free which means it’s also very slow and balky, but now it works with a lightening speed and efficiency that I didn’t think was possible for that kind of set up. And all the annoying banners and pop up ads have been filtered out as well. It’s as close to perfect as I can possibly imagine and better than anything else I’ve ever seen.
What’s more, since virtually every appliance and machine I own, including this old pickup truck, relies to some extent on the computer for maintenance and control it means that all those old second-hand items I bought on the cheap now work at least as well, if not better, than the best of the brand new ones. The stove and micro-wave now cook my food exactly the way I instruct them to; the picture on the wall viewer is like looking out an open window it’s so clear; the thermostat keeps every corner of the trailer at the even 21%C I prefer; and even the rattly old fridge doesn’t get any frost buildup in the freezer compartment anymore. Not that all these things weren’t basically functional before; it’s just that they didn’t work as well as they ideally could have.
It’s the same thing with the pocket phone where I have the cheapest subscription package you can get. Voice and video transmissions were always of poor quality and connections to the net full of delays and interruptions. Now everything goes through as clearly and promptly as though it were on a dedicated line.
And the pickup! Like most older vehicles of its type the home computer has always been responsible for minor tune-ups and the flagging of major problems that can’t wait for a regular visit to the garage. Now I don’t even bother with those visits. The truck runs as smooth as glass without any of the hitches it used to have and the engine doesn’t make a sound you can hear. But the really remarkable thing is that the gas mileage seems to have more than tripled! Now I get odd, almost accusing, looks the few times I do pull up to the pumps at the local garage I used to go to for check-ups. I guess they figure I’ve abandoned them for some other place and, as I kind of liked the people there, I hate for them to think that; but I don’t see what I can do about it. What am I going to do, tell them “It’s nothing you did, it’s just that now I have this space alien who takes care of things for me and I don’t need you anymore?”
The real truth is that I’ve been afraid to take it in to have somebody else take a look at it. Afraid both of the questions that would inevitably get asked, questions that I can have no good answers to, and, I now have to admit, afraid of having to fully acknowledge to myself just how extensive my boarders capabilities are. After the further glimpse I got of those capabilities yesterday that just got a lot more difficult to avoid doing.
As anybody who ever reads this can probably understand, even before yesterday I had already sensed a vast potential power to be lying within that innocuous looking blob lying in a corner of my trailer. A potential of such unknown vastness as to often give me the uneasy feeling of having a sleeping tiger by the tail. I sometimes feel like a child playing with a chemistry set with no real idea of how explosive the results of my actions, in this case my taking in and continued sheltering of the creature, might be. But I guess since I had already committed myself I’ve preferred to live in the fools paradise of not really thinking about it much, of continuing to pretend that it all really isn’t such a big deal.
Getting back to what happened yesterday, as I bent down to pick up the groceries off the floor I glanced over at him and was struck by how much he has grown of late. He’s about doubled his length, making him now about one and a half metres long, though his width and height have stayed about the same.
He has taken in no material sustenance that I can see, only continued to feed from the electrical energy generated by the solar panels and wind turbine. That means he’s basically feeding and growing directly off of the electrical current, something I’ve heard of no other living thing on Earth doing.
Other than his size though he hasn’t changed much in appearance over these last few months. His surface colour remains the same quietly glowing reddish brown he’s had since he first started taking in electricity and he has the same dimpled texture that he had when I found him. The result is to give him the appearance of something artificial or made because of the symmetrical evenness of the dimples; but there is also a kind of leathery look to his surface, like that of synthetic cowhide.
I haven’t actually touched him since he first became animate so I don’t really know how soft or firm the exterior surface of his body is. I would guess that he can probably revert to the hard surfaced condition I found him in if he felt he needed to for protection.
The most surprising thing to me though is that he’s retained his basic oblong blob-like shape. He’s grown no arm or leg-like appendages to help him to move things or himself around; nor has he developed, as far as I can tell, any kind of eyes, ears, or mouth. It appears that he continues to see, hear, and speak solely through the computer and its peripherals.
“So how’s it going there,” I called out in his general direction as I started to store the groceries, “everything okay?” I always try to say something like that to him whenever I enter the trailer. I’m not sure why, maybe just to make sure he’s still alive and real and not just some wild hallucinogenic delusion. I think if I were to go home right now and find him gone without a trace or reverted back into an inanimate lump I’d be able to convince myself he was just that. As it is I think he’s come to know that I expect some kind of response from him.
“I am fine, thank you very much,” he said in his sober news anchor voice, “and how are you today?” After I replied that I was fine as well, thank you, he then calmly said “I am afraid we may have some visitors.”
I froze midway through the motion of storing the milk in the fridge - not sure I had heard right. “Huh? What’s that?” I said. “Did you say visitors? You mean...friends of yours?”
“No-no,” he said quickly, “that is still a ways in the future. I mean...” he hesitated, something he’s mostly gotten over when speaking, “what I mean to say is that I have erred. I have somewhat underestimated the intrusion detection and back-tracing capabilities of a small number of sub-systems of this planets data network. I immediately corrected for my mistake as soon as I became aware of it but unfortunately one of the sub-systems was able to compute a probable fix on my approximate location. An extensive physical search of approximately a two hundred square kilometre area surrounding our location is about to occur.”
I was momentarily stunned by what he had said, not quite willing to believe it. “Wha-what are you talking about?” I finally managed to gasp out disbelievingly.
“They are on their way even as we speak,” he said in that maddeningly calm voice of his. As if to illustrate the wall viewer lit up with a video shot from a helicopter taking off from the flat concrete expanse of a large landing field.
Forgetting the groceries I moved to get a better look and in the distance I could see a high security fence like those that surround prisons, except the spikes at the top were angled outward to keep people out rather than inward to keep them in. Beyond the fence there was the cold grey-white of a snow clad woods beneath an icy blue sky. The view then shifted to the side where there were a number of other helicopters rising in tandem with the one carrying the camera and beyond which could be seen a collection of grey, drab looking, one and two story buildings.
Over the wall speakers I could hear the incomprehensible chit chat of radio communications between the helicopters and their base while along the bottom of the screen ran an even more incomprehensible stream of letters and numbers.
I tried with some difficulty to grasp the implications of what I was seeing and hearing. “Are-are you saying they’re coming here?” I said in disbelief.
“They are about to initiate a search pattern roughly centred over this location. They will shortly be joined by others operating on the ground and from orbital space. Now that I have corrected for my original mistake they will not be able to pinpoint this location with any certainty but you should be prepared to encounter them. They may not make it obvious to you who they are or what they want.”
“This-this is incredible,” I sputtered. “What do I do now? Just sit here and wait for them? And just who exactly are they?”
“They are members of security agencies from a number of this planet’s most powerful nation states and corporate entities.” The scene displayed on the wall abruptly shifted to show a large room as seen from ceiling height looking from the back towards the head of a long conference table. A man and woman in military uniform were addressing an audience, some uniformed and some not, seated along both sides of the table. The two speakers stood before a holographic display that filled the entire wall behind them and kept shifting in scale and perspective as they spoke and gestured to certain aspects of it. The hologram at that moment was a kind of realtime topographical model or map. Looking at it I could almost immediately recognize certain landmarks from around this area. I could see the river gradually widening as it flowed downstream from north to south and the collection of buildings on the east side of it, the L shaped outline of the strip mall clearly recognizable on the outskirts, I knew had to be the nearest town to where I live. As I studied the display some more I was able to make out the bridge crossing the river and the dark brown ribbon of the dirt road I live on as it ran through the snow shrouded countryside along the west side of the river. The river itself looked like a winding white snake, its shape outlined by the trees on its bank and streaked by dark areas of open running water.
Overlaid on the display was a series of roughly concentric circles like the contour lines showing points of equal altitude you see on topographical maps. These lines weren’t showing altitude though. The male speaker was talking about concentrations of EM disturbance and radiation and as he did so the perspective on the display zoomed in toward the centre of the rings. As the scale decreased I could see individual buildings nestled in the woods along the river. First I recognized the distinctive gabled roof of Bill Johnson’s place, my nearest neighbour about two klicks south of me. Then I saw my place. There it was; the weather beaten old trailer in the small clearing, with the shed on the other side of the thick line that was the driveway, and the pickup, small enough you could cover it with the end of your thumb, parked out front. It was kind of a weird feeling knowing that I was inside that trailer at that very moment; seeing the holographic representation of what a spy satellite was observing from high overhead at that moment.
The trailer was just outside the innermost of the irregularly shaped concentric circles, like a dart that has just missed the bullseye. There were no buildings actually inside the bullseye, my place and the Johnson’s were both just outside it. I guess that means we’re both likely to get a lot of the initial scrutiny as these people intensify their search for the culprit who hacked into their systems.
I feel sorry about that. The Johnson’s don’t deserve whatever is about to happen to them. Bill Johnson’s a good guy; as a machine operator at the sawmill he’s got a fair amount of computer related expertise, and his wife, who works in town at the bank, does as well. That, along with two bright kids just entering their teens is going to make all four of them hell of a lot better candidates for having done some high-level hacking than some old codger like me with an antiquated system who’s just barely competent enough to log onto the net without any help.
As the conference continued a small red circle appeared in the hologram around the Johnson home and the woman began relating basic biographical information on the individual members of the family. Holophoto head shots along with a stream of text were displayed on the flexi-screens in front of each seat. After she’d finished discussing the Johnson’s the red circle moved to my place; neatly encircling both the trailer and the shed. Again I had an eerie feeling as I realized that I was in that trailer at that very moment as I was seeing it encircled in the hologram and at the centre of attention of everybody in that room. What looked like my driver’s license holophoto appeared on the conference table screens while the woman in about two minutes briefly summarized my entire life and background as I guess it must appear in their records.
After finishing with me she moved on to give similarly brief biographical sketches of other possible suspects in the area, all of whom I have at least a nodding acquaintance with. She made no comment about what she thought of each potential suspect’s likelihood of being responsible for the “incident” that had brought her and her colleagues together. Nor did either she or her partner mention the reported sighting and falling to earth of a meteorite in this area last fall, much less mention any possible connection between that incident and the one they were investigating.
There was a string of letters and numbers like a tickertape moving along the bottom of the picture that I couldn’t make head or tail of but right in the corner I could see the date and time right down to the hundredth of a second. It was just a few seconds after 2:23 P.M. “How much time do we have before they get here?” I asked.
“We are already under satellite surveillance, as the topographical display indicates,” he replied, “and aircraft will reach the area within approximately eighteen minutes. They are still formulating their plans for an investigation from the ground but we can expect that to begin sometime tomorrow.”
I don’t know how he’s learned to read human expressions but I think it must have been the look on my face at that point that caused him to try to reassure me. “There is actually no need for worry or concern,” he said in Bert Sniderman’s most reassuring tones. “Their orbital and aerial surveys will find nothing as I have eliminated all detectable transmissions. They are even now beginning to doubt whether this incident occurred because of an actual breech of their security systems or because of an actual malfunction within the systems themselves. As time passes and no further evidence is found to support the first explanation they are increasingly likely to come to believe the second, which to them will be the more plausible and convenient one. I will also arrange for small clues to be discovered by them that support that belief.”
“You seem awfully confident of yourself ,” I said, a little testily, “but if anything goes wrong again I’m the one who’s going to be left holding the bag while you just vanish into thin air.”
I foresee no possible threat to you,” he said. “You have done nothing to harm them and as I told you before I am quite able to avoid their detecting my existence.”
Fine for you, I thought, but that still leaves only me to take the blame. If I did try to tell them about you they wouldn’t believe me.
There really didn’t seem to be much I could do about things at that point so I just aimlessly puttered around for the next couple of hours, not doing much of anything in particular, till finally the tension of waiting for something to happen got to be too much for me and I just had to get out of there.
The helicopters arrived as he had predicted they would and are now unobtrusively sweeping the area from the skies. You have to look for them to even know they’re there since they’re flying high overhead and using some sort of silent technology that eliminates any engine noise and the usual “chop- chop” sound. Now that it’s dark it’s difficult to see them against the stars and the black of the night sky but I’m pretty sure they’re still there.
I didn’t notice anybody following when I drove into town and then walked around a bit but I assume that I’m under some kind of surveillance as I sit here scribbling this down. They’re probably wondering what I’m doing and after I put this in the glove compartment and go for another coffee and a sandwich maybe someone will come and see what it is I’ve written. It’d be an easy enough thing for people like that to do and I wouldn’t even try to stop them, even if I could see the truck from inside the coffee shop. Maybe I’ll even leave it out on the dashboard and make it easy for them, like I’m leaving them a message. In some ways it would be a relief to get this all over and done with, even if it meant they thought I was crazy. Perhaps they’ll be waiting for me with a straitjacket when I get back.
It seems this little journal is fated to continue. There wasn’t anybody waiting for me when I returned to the truck from the coffee shop that evening and I drove back without incident. So far as I know or can tell nobody else has read any of this. Perhaps in this electronic age nobody bothers with, or thinks anybody would record anything of importance, with such primitive tools as paper and pencil. But I think after I’ve finished this entry I’ll put everything I’ve written down related to my alien boarder in some more secure place than the glove compartment of the pickup.
Things have actually turned out pretty much as he said they would. The unmarked helicopters continued to silently fly high overhead for the better part of a week and eventually people started to notice and wonder. The official explanation for the helicopters, printed on the back page of the local weekly and posted locally on the net, was that the power company was surveying the area, particularly the west side of the river, for the possible extension of its lines and service areas.
It wasn’t a particularly convincing explanation, at least not to me, since there haven’t been many new people moving to this area lately and you wouldn’t expect the power company to be using expensive military type helicopters. It was good enough though to put off any curious locals - who were not going to be able to prove anything different. On the whole people just shrugged their shoulders and went about their business as usual. After all, what other plausible explanation could there be?
It was just after 10:00 A.M. the next day that a power company van drove up to the trailer and three men in company overalls got out. They said they had come to survey the place with regard to my potentially becoming a customer. They had all sorts of fancy gadgets and scanners with which they walked around everywhere, checking they said for anomalous magnetic fields and mineral deposits that could interfere with power transmission. Of course I didn’t believe a word of it for a second and I would have been within my rights to have them thrown off the property; but that would have only forestalled them for a bit and probably forced them to become more heavy handed. So I played along with their game and pretended to be interested in the possibility of getting hitched up.
When they came into the trailer they examined every electronic device I had to “make sure they comply with company standards.” I’m willing to bet though that what they were actually doing was going over everything with an electronic fine-tooth comb, deep scanning every bit and circuit in the place for evidence that I was the shadowy hacker they sought.
Needless to say they didn’t find anything. My shadowy but very real boarder had evidently done a good job in covering his tracks. Even the quantum improvements he’s made to the working efficiency of virtually every electronic piece of equipment I own evaded detection by the intruders instruments.
I almost felt sorry for them; they didn’t know what they were dealing with. They had started out being pretty abrupt and officious, more like the cops they likely really were than utility service personnel. By the time they were ready to go more than three hours later they were almost apologetic about their unwarranted intrusion into my life. Probably though they had never really expected to find anything.
As for the real object of their fruitless search; he did his disappearing act again just before they showed up. But I had the feeling that wherever he had gotten to he was keeping close tabs on what was going on here. Once the men had finally finished and left it didn’t take him long to reappear. One moment he was gone and the next he was back at his familiar place by the wall beside the desk. I asked him where he had been and all he would say was “nearby.”
And that was pretty much it. The helicopters continued to fly silently through the bright icy blue sky during the days and the frigid star studded black during the nights and some more places along the river got visits from crews like the one that had visited me, but within a week they had all gone back to wherever they had come from.
That doesn’t mean they aren’t still keeping an eye on things around here. My boarder has been so good as to point out to me some tiny surveillance devices left behind by our inquisitive visitors. They are almost microscopically small, smaller than a speck of dust, and planted strategically all around inside and outside the trailer. There is one on the ceiling over the desk; another above the medicine cabinet in the washroom; and one in the kitchen nook above the cupboards. There are also ones in the toolshed and the cab of the pickup. There are even some in the woods ringing the trailer.
I know they must be of doubtful legality, but as I’m not supposed to know about the bugs - to complain about them would be to raise the question of how I found out about them. It would put me under suspicion of having just the kinds of knowledge and capabilities needed to have committed the offences I’m suspected of. It puts me in an Orwellian Catch-22 kind of situation where I feel I have no choice but to leave the bugs where they are. My boarder assures me however that he’s seen to it that they’ll only see and hear what is consistent with their existing profile on me.
I assume that also means that they don’t see what I’m writing as I sit here at my desk but that he does. I glance over at him by the wall but there is no reaction; he just sits there placidly, softly glowing.
I also know that anything I do on the net is going to be monitored but there is no need for him to filter out or alter anything they get from that since having an alien blob hanging around hasn’t actually affected anything I do on the net. For that matter it hasn’t much changed the routine of my daily life at all.
Nonetheless over the past week or so I have begun to feel inhibited in what I do over the net. It’s not like at my age I have much interest in web-porn, I don’t even have any of the peripherals that really make it worthwhile, but now that I definitely know that he at least would know if I did choose to access that kind of thing (would there be any point in asking him to please not peek at whatever I was doing on the net? How could I be sure he was complying?) I feel inhibited and restricted in a way I didn’t before. I feel I’ve lost some freedom and choice as a result.
I said before that having an alien around hasn’t affected what I do on the net but now that I think of it that’s not quite true. Since he hasn’t been very forthcoming on the subject of where he came from I’ve been doing some research on the net on where alien beings from other worlds might come from, how they would get here, how often they might be visiting us, and so on. Not surprisingly there is a lot of divergent opinion on the matter, some of it pretty far out, but little if anything in the way of solid conclusions. But just the knowledge that either he or some human snooper could be monitoring my efforts to research the subject every step of the way I find to be highly inhibiting. So I haven’t pursued it further for the past couple of weeks and I don’t think I’ll resume it.
The thing is though, if records exist of what I was doing before, and they undoubtedly do if my boarder hasn’t managed to somehow erase them, then the fact I’ve suddenly stopped looking into the subject right after the suspected security breech of their systems occurred might lead some bright soul among those investigating the alleged incident to wonder if there was some kind of connection. But even if that were the case it would still take a huge leap of logic for anybody to come anywhere close to the truth. More likely I’d simply be dismissed as some sort of crank who’d decided that UFO’s weren’t his thing after all.
Next day: 02/11/2019
I’m writing this as I sit at the back of the coffee shop in its rearmost booth. It’s not a very big place but right now, early afternoon, there’s hardly anyone here; just the clerk and one other person at the counter. I don’t think anyone is going to pay much attention to me here for a while.
I’m here because I just couldn’t stand to keep writing my thoughts and opinions down knowing that Bert (yes, I’m going to start calling him “Bert” from now on since that’s who he sounds like; it’s better than referring to the creature as just “he” or “the boarder” all the time and it’ll give me a better way of starting a conversation with him than “hey you”) was more than likely reading every word I put down. It makes me realize that spying on someone is not just an invasion of their privacy, if they know it’s happening it’s also a form of censorship. I could’ve just told Bert not to read what I was writing but knowing as I now do at least the partial extent of his capabilities how can I be sure he really isn’t as long as I’m within range of any kind of camera or other viewing device?
After having had time to think about it I think that the real significance of what happened last month is that it’s just more evidence of just how tremendous Bert’s abilities really are. The fact is he managed to get past the defences of the most secure computer systems in the world and decrypt the information they contained. To just intercept and show me the live feeds from the helicopter and conference room would have taken tremendous computational processing power to get past and decipher what must be the most sophisticated security and encryption techniques on Earth.
With the ability to access and pass undetected through the farthest and most secret reaches of a communications and data network that these days encompasses virtually the entirety of human civilization there is almost nothing beyond him. With access to financial databases and inside information he could create funds and bank accounts for himself out of thin air, buy and sell whole companies, maybe affect the course of the whole economy. He could enter scientific databases and manipulate the direction of scientific research - either causing or preventing important discoveries being made. For that matter, he could probably rig the stock market.
As the old saying goes, information is power, and with the selective disclosure of sensitive information, through an anonymous email to a newspaper for instance, he could influence political events, make or break political careers and even governments. For all I know he might even be able to bypass the safeguards that are supposed to prevent the implanting of subliminal suggestions in peoples minds over the net. His technology is totally unknown to the designers of those safeguards. Done on a large enough scale he could influence the way people vote and the outcome of elections.
I know I’m beginning to sound paranoid, even to myself, but I really have no idea of what his limits are. I have no real reason to believe he’s up to no good; indeed in the brief time since he’s arrived things seem to have gotten generally better in the world.
But the more I think about it the more uneasy I get. He looks to have more power than I would trust any human being to have but the basic situation hasn’t changed; I’m in no better position to expose him, to make people believe he even exists, than I was before last months incident. That’s assuming I would even want to do that, and at this point, despite my misgivings, I’m not sure that I do.
To Be Continued…