Element 42 -
1. The Stranger
It was well past eight when he stopped, just past a battered sign that read, “Elevation 13,000 Feet.” It wasn’t marked on his map, but Steve knew it was the place. He parked in a turnout at the edge of a cliff and climbed up to a natural terrace that overlooked his Jeep. With the last daylight fading in the west, a sky full of stars and a gibbous moon lit the rocky ledge.
Though he was far above the tree line, the thin, rapidly cooling air carried a hint of wildflowers, just a trace, but enough to lift his spirits. He walked, breathing deeply, imagining each exhalation cleansing the poisons he’d let accumulate. Such was his euphoria, he almost failed to notice the faint tug at the edge of his consciousness. Whatever had drawn him here was luring him toward the shadow cast by the final thrust of the mountain. Moving behind the three-hundred-foot rock formation, he lost sight of the rented Jeep, and with it his connection to the incapacitating terror he’d felt that morning in Denver.
The boundary between moonlight and shadow was like a portal into a different reality. He felt alone, insignificant, almost without substance in the sudden darkness. A fleeting vision, a future of transcendent awe tinged with fear, foreshadowed vertigo, as a chill wind made him cinch his jacket close around him and drop to a crouch. Shivering, he hugged his knees and pressed his back into a concave notch in the rock face.
Soothing breaths and the solidity of his makeshift cave nudged his wildly oscillating emotions toward a nadir of calm. Before him was a startling vista that hadn’t been visible from the road, mountains in stark relief against the stars, flashes of white, even in July, marking pockets of ice. Feeling he was just below the top of the world, with his eyes adapted to the darkness, he saw the back slope of the mountain in precise detail.
A few hundred feet lower and what looked to be about a mile away was a small alpine lake, placid and beautiful. Imagining he could discern tiny ripples and sense life pulsing, he felt tranquil…until Joannie’s face appeared on its surface, her voice in his head.
“It’s been three years, Steve. It’s time to say good-bye, let the past go and face the truth. I’m gone, but you’re still Jason’s father.”
Denial surged in his breast, and with it the sour aftertaste of the panic and hallucinations he’d felt that morning. She was right, he couldn’t go on this way any longer.
“I let him leave, Joannie. I was afraid he was right,” Steve spoke aloud, needing absolution. “I couldn’t face my guilt. I abandoned him.” But the mirage produced by his tormented psyche, was gone.
“I want my life back,” he whispered.
He stood, stretching his cramped muscles, contemplating the lake, vowing to repair the damage he’d done. Cold, shivering, he paced the ledge, restless as the leopards he and Jason used to watch at the zoo. The breeze smelled of lavender, and he was aware, again, of the strange compulsion he’d felt all day. His feet seemed to move of their own accord toward a moonlit path, probably an animal track, that led down toward the lake. He saw the way clearly, as if he were outside his body, hovering over the land.
He walked, entranced, until rustlings in the scrub growth brought him up short, the specter of a mountain lion foraging in the darkness reawakening the fear that had possessed him twelve hours earlier. What in God’s name am I doing out here? He steeled himself against the anxiety that threated his fragile stability, determined that it wouldn’t claim him again. It’s probably just a jackrabbit.
A few deep breaths, and his heart shifted out of overdrive. The alkaline smell of bone-dry brush cooling from the day’s heat helped ground him. And that flower scent − subtle, enticing, alluring − pushed back his fright and nearly defeated it, only to be undone again by thoughts of rattlesnakes lurking in the dark. These were the Rockies, after all, not the benign western slopes of the Cascades.
He knew 13,000 feet was too high for rattlers or wildcats, but he still turned to high-tail it back up the trail, stopping in mid-stride when something glinting in the moonlight caught his eye. He tried to spot it again, his temples throbbing as he expelled the breath he’d been holding. There. Something was mostly submerged in the lake, close to the near shore. Truncated by the moon shadow of a large boulder, he could see only part of it.
It looks like the tail of a small plane. Why didn’t I notice it from up on the ledge?
“What…” An intense, pencil-thin red beam − a laser? − shot from the object, rising into the sky at a steep angle, its equally sudden disappearance silencing his exclamation before he’d fully formed it. A shape lurched from the water into the shadows, and he heard heavy objects being dropped and something being dragged. That must have been the pilot, and the beam was probably a signal aimed at a satellite.
Steve wanted to cry out, to shout into the darkness, but he was dumbstruck. He was shaking again, doubting the evidence of his senses. He’d had trouble distinguishing illusion from reality for weeks.
The relentless feeling of being pulled gnawed at his awareness, and the scent of wildflowers was back, stronger this time. With something between fascination and horror, he felt it transform his disquiet into keen anticipation. An extraordinary chain of events over which he had no control was approaching a cusp, as though a storm that had been gathering all day were about to break. Was he losing his mind? No! This was real.
He shook himself. There was an injured pilot down there. Time might be critical.
His phone was back in the Jeep with the flashlight and mountain survival kit that had come with it. Determined, now, he retraced his steps up to the ledge. Breathless from the exertion, he measured his pace, knowing he’d risk hypoxia if he pushed too hard. He moved around the spire of granite at the top of the mountain and down the drop-off to his Jeep.
He reached for his phone. No signal. Tossing it on the seat in disgust, he grabbed the flashlight and tucked the Walther semi-automatic Phil insisted he carry on trips in his belt. He dug through flares and blankets for the first aid kit, deciding to leave everything else behind.
With a light guiding him, the trail felt different. He relegated the ghostly sense that something had drawn him here to his subconscious, but his mind still raced. Damn, I should have planted a flare behind the Jeep and left a note on the windshield.
Distracted, he wrenched his back on an ice slick and nearly tumbled down the steep path. He stood, his hands braced on his knees, waiting for the pain to ebb, struggling to force rarefied air into his oxygen-starved lungs, while gauging how far it was to the lake. He’d heard the pilot clearly, but sound carried differently in clear mountain air, and distances could be deceptive.
He picked his way, reaching the lake shore much too soon. The fin, which had seemed small from a distance, loomed twice his height above the surface of the lake. It seemed slightly off, evoking a quip from his old aerodynamics professor: “…within a limited range of variation, the laws of physics require all lifting and steering surfaces to conform to the same basic shape. Otherwise, they turn into free-falling objects.” Though the shape before him seemed, most recently, to have been of the latter variety, he was sure it hadn’t been designed that way.
He stole along the lake shore, ready to dive for cover at the least provocation. There was no sound, not of wavelets lapping in the now windless night, not even of his own footsteps. The unruffled surface of the lake mirrored the moonlight, colorless and bright. He strained to make out whether anything was visible in the shadow of the boulders, when…
“Scheiss!” A shout shattered the crystal perfection as though a cannon had fired.
Steve cried out in pain as his right leg crumbled, and he dropped to the ground. He rose, and gingerly tested his leg. Finding it sound, he realized that the sudden agony he’d felt was not his own. What the hell had happened? How, knowing no German, had he translated “Scheiss” into “Shit”?
The shouter was behind the boulders, more than a hundred feet away. Yet the voice had been as loud as if he’d stood beside him and bellowed in his ear with a bullhorn. It should have shocked his eardrums and there should have been a booming echo, but instead, Steve felt only a sharp, brief twinge somewhere near the top of his head. And the only echo he sensed was like a tiny eight ball bouncing around inside his skull. The same not-rightness he’d felt looking at the tail fin accompanied the voice. A single word had somehow transmitted the shouter’s pain.
All this in less time than it took to blink, except that he wasn’t blinking, or turning his head, or walking, or even breathing. He’d halted in mid-step with his left foot firmly on the ground, and his right absurdly perched eight inches in the air, to step over an inconveniently placed slab of granite. Frozen in place with his center of gravity not quite where it needed to be to keep from falling, his overtaxed brain frantically signaled his leg to right itself, and his arms to reach for something to grab onto. He tottered on the brink, but he didn’t fall.
He felt no fear now, just an illuminating instant of synergy. Years of wondering and speculation came together in a flash of comprehension, and his only thought was: “Oh.”
And if he still needed verification, there was one more thing. I knew his leg was broken.
Though it seemed longer, Steve’s paralysis could have lasted only a few seconds. With his right leg raised and his inner ear sending an imbalance alert to the rest of his body, he became aware of an image of being released, superimposed on a strong inhibition against fleeing or making noise, as if someone had said, “I’ll let you go if you promise not to run or scream.” He had no desire to do either, but all that remained of the last breath he’d drawn was a cloying scent of lavender. He needed to exhale.
He knew with implausible certainty that something extranormal had planted the image in his mind. How could he respond? Nature abhors complexity, so the technique must be simple.
He envisioned a virtual letter drop, in which both he and an outsider could place messages. Then, filling his mind with total compliance, using feelings more than words, he concentrated on placing it just so. His lungs suddenly deflated, leaving him gasping, and his right foot came down painfully on the hard rock he had been trying to avoid. Maybe he’s trying to even the odds by breaking my leg, too.
Steve doubled over, again fighting to breathe in the thin air, feeling he was at the threshold of something he’d only dreamed of: telepathy, telekinesis. To communicate and affect things beyond the scope of his five physical senses, to use the untapped potential of his brain he believed was there. It was exhilarating, as if a door that had always been locked had opened.
But had it, really? Three years of denying the reality of what he’d lost when Joannie died had weakened the foundation of his sanity, until he finally snapped on the Fourth of July. Alone and working, he’d suffered a panic attack that was still fresh in his memory. The gibberish streaming down his computer screen that morning had been the first in a series of breaks from reality. For ten days, he’d experienced hallucinations, never knowing for sure what was real and what wasn’t. It had all come crashing down on him this morning in Denver in the office of Karl Barrington, CFO of Symphony Mines.
I must be out of my mind. First I run out of a client meeting and flee to the mountains, and now I’m ecstatic over being immobilized by some unknown force and receiving telepathic messages. What next?
As if in answer to his silent query, he realized that the compulsion he’d felt since morning and the elusive flower-scent were both gone. The apparent tampering with his free will – now that he thought about it, it had started when he’d panicked in Barrington’s office – was no more. A surge of anger came over him. What the hell was going on? The answer, he was sure, lay beyond those rocks. As quickly as he dared, he scrambled toward the scant cover they offered and peered into a small clearing.
Whatever he expected to find, the anticlimactic reality was a man as unremarkable-looking as Steve himself, sitting on the ground with an obviously damaged right leg propped on one of a number of duffel bags, his back supported by a second. His build was husky where Steve’s was average, his hair dark where Steve’s was sandy, and he showed several days growth of beard. He might have been any middle-aged man.
ooking, despite his obvious pain, like he’d been patiently awaiting Steve’s arrival, the man said, “I am sorry to speak first in German. The pain distracted me and your languages are so many, much effort is required to separate them.”
The innocuous-sounding declaration was as startling to Steve as the man’s mundane appearance. His unaccented speech lacked emotion and inflection, and his phrasing was awkward, as though he’d learned English from a dictionary. And accompanying the words was an unmistakable air of contrition over having made such an error.
Pointing to one of the duffels, the injured man said, “If you will, please, sit with me.”
His pained expression caused Steve to wince in sympathy, but it was more than that. He felt an excruciating pain in his right leg. Fighting through it, he sat as he was bidden, re-living the past few minutes in his mind. Had this stranger with the broken leg actually frozen him in place in mid-step and communicated with him using only his mind from over a hundred feet away? A premonitory suspicion made his heart race.
“You wonder who I must be, why I am here.”
The man’s foreign-sounding speech was accompanied by a flood of impressions that popped into Steve’s mind out of whole cloth. He’d communicated with a mixture of words, background thoughts, and emotions. And though the intertwined messages were too confusing to sort out, they intensified Steve’s excitement over what surely must be telepathy, and the thought he’d been trying to ignore: maybe he’s not human.
Inanely, Steve quipped, “Wherever you’re from, it isn’t the planet Krypton,” but he sensed that the stranger had taken his joke literally. Wondering which was more likely, a telepathic, telekinetic human being or an extraterrestrial, he was elated by the latter possibility. He still felt neither fear nor threat. The terrors that had been dogging him, the next evening’s client meeting, his entire life outside this alpine basin had lost their significance.
Though Steve generally thought things through logically, he wasn’t averse to an occasional leap of intuition . Thus, though he couldn’t have said exactly why, he distilled two conclusions from the maelstrom of his impressions. One was that the alien, foreigner − whatever he was – was aware of every thought and feeling Steve experienced. The other, wholly unexpected realization was that he seemed embarrassed, as if he had accidentally intruded on an intensely private moment.
He’s apologizing for listening to my thoughts, more so for controlling my actions. He desperately wants me to understand that this was a special situation. Vulnerable and in need of help, he had to be sure I wasn’t dangerous.
Under the circumstances, he forgave the other’s breach of etiquette, and was rewarded by a broad smile and a sigh of relief. Incredible. All I have to do is focus on a thought and he understands.
He looked into the stranger’s eyes across the six feet that separated them, seeing the same anticipation he felt himself. He concentrated.
The stranger’s eyes flickered then closed as his body sagged, and he fell back against his duffel. <Forgive me, for communicating this way. It is easier for me, and I must rest.>
Steve had been paying careful attention. He’d <heard> the message clearly, though the man had not spoken. It was convincing as hell, but then, his hallucinations had been too.
Like this morning. A bright ray from the still-rising sun had shined through that spot you can’t ever quite close in hotel drapes, and impacted the mirror over the dresser in just the right way to reflect through the open bathroom door where Steve was shaving. Distracted by the dust motes dancing in the re-directed sunbeam, he looked back at his face in the mirror and saw Phil’s patient reflection standing behind him.
They’d argued, igniting Steve’s passion over a long-delayed decision…until an adrenaline rush of horror immobilized him. He’d been alone the entire time, reliving a ten-year-old conversation in his imagination.
Wracked with doubt again, he studied the alleged alien. Was he really more than an injured man barely clinging to consciousness? I have to be able to trust the evidence of my senses. And my senses say he’s real.
Their easy communication had to be mostly the alien’s doing, but Steve thought his own tendency to communicate without deceit or ulterior motive helped. He broadcast his thoughts guilelessly, and the stranger, sensing that, didn’t have to waste time dealing with suspicion. On the other hand, Steve didn’t want his every thought and feeling exposed. Could he control what he broadcast? An answer appeared in his mind.
<I will show you, but now, all my energy is needed to heal this leg.>
Steve realized he’d unquestioningly accepted the alien’s ability to heal himself. Was that because having thoughts and emotions appear in his head bypassed his usual filters of judgment and skepticism? He vowed to be cognizant of that, then blanched as he realized the stranger had <overheard> him.
<Your mind is open,> appeared in Steve’s head. <This is good, and unexpected. Also fortunate, because we must trust each other, if either of us is to survive.>
Like the alien’s earlier, spoken statements, this exposition was delivered without emotion. Steve knew he should focus on the other’s words, but the robot-like quality of their delivery awakened memories of old silent movies and images of Chaplinesque figures cavorting over lifeless captions. He had to struggle to keep from laughing, which was futile, because he couldn’t hide the impulse from Brock.
Brock? That’s his name. I must have picked it from his mind!
He also picked up another basic truth: reading thoughts or feelings and interpreting them correctly weren’t the same thing. Brock thought Steve was amused by his warning.
<You must not laugh,> he cautioned. <I comprehend that the things I fear are not within your knowledge, but you must believe what I say. Our lives may depend on it.>
The quality of their communication was improving rapidly. Brock must have an amazing adaptive learning ability. Damn, I’m doing it again. I no sooner resolve to honestly assess the evidence of my senses and I’m tingling with excitement over how well we’re conversing instead of reacting to what he said.
“What’s threatening us?” he asked, but Brock had slipped into a trance-like state. His eyes remained closed and he lay perfectly still, yet Steve continued to <hear> his voice.
<It is the Others. They destroyed my flyer, and if they find me, they will kill me.>
That got to Steve, but it wasn’t just Brock’s words. He hadn’t actually <said> Others. He’d sent a nonverbal image. It had an empathic component that suggested a total absence of morality, lack of respect for life, and an all-encompassing, egocentric thirst for something Steve couldn’t identify. But it was the telepathic part that left Steve cold.
His shock was of recognition, thanks to decades of UFO cults and Hollywood producers. Brock’s mental image of the Others was identical to the odd-looking aliens from the tabloids, with their triangular heads, almond-shaped eyes, and gray, colorless skin. Until that moment, as alien encounters go, Steve would have rated meeting Brock an A-plus. With this new development, his calm evaporated and his terror resurfaced.
It was another instance of reading thoughts but misunderstanding them. Earlier, when it first occurred to Steve that Brock was an alien, he had unwittingly broadcast a hodgepodge of images, among which was the prototypical alien that looked exactly like Brock’s Others. Brock must have thought a familiar picture would be easy for Steve to accept and perhaps open another door in his mind and reinforce Steve’s already favorable reaction to him. He was right about opening a door. He just hadn’t known what kind of demons it would release.
The part of Steve that fought to avert panic sensed Brock’s awareness of his distress, as well as the alien’s concern that helping Steve might push him to the brink of collapse; finally, he <heard> Brock’s decision that easing Steve’s disquiet was more important.
Steve got his wits back, accompanied by an overpowering dose of the now-familiar flower scent that almost made him retch, overlaid again with mortal embarrassment. Emergency or not, in Brock’s value system, what he’d done was an obscene breach of manners, and Brock, being the very decent sort that Steve now saw him to be, was mortified.
So – it seemed there were good aliens and bad aliens and the bad ones wanted to kill the good ones. If Brock was right, they didn’t care if they took out some humans along the way.
<The reality is more complicated than that, but you are correct,> Brock said.
Though time was short, Brock was content to rest and concentrate on healing. With nothing to do but wait, Steve thought about the decades-long debate over alien encounters that had ignited Jason’s adolescent curiosity and how, together, they’d spent months gathering every credible published account, building large mountains out of tiny mole hills.
Joannie had beamed at him. “You’re getting a charge out of this. You and Jason haven’t worked so closely on something since he started middle school.”
They’d read the Air Force’s final, definitive report on the events at Roswell, New Mexico, and found it transparently absurd. Why would the government throw a fifty-year security blanket on recovering a couple of crash dummies? If the Air Force had merely been conducting a test, why drop a remote-controlled plane on someone’s farm? And why did the official findings cite so many unexplained events?
Steve wondered if his earlier feelings about Jason had made him more susceptible to believing Brock was an alien. Could it just be that I so badly want him to be one?
Bone-tired himself, Steve glanced at Brock’s somnolent form. I guess I can close my eyes too, just for a minute.