First Impressions
By Paul Beecham
==============

What value can one place on simple companionship, the reassuring presence of one's own kind? Perhaps there are those who crave the peace and solitude I have to endure, but I would give up life itself for one last communion in concert with my people. The aeons I lived with my people seem but a moment compared to my long dark exile in the absolute cold of interstellar lowspace, my immobile absorption body forever tumbling over and over in a journey that may never see an ending.

*****

"I'm telling you Doug, it was the damnedest thing."

Jeff Corlowe stared into his drink as he spoke, the damp ash on his federal issue ranger jacket leaving grey streaks on the bar over which he was hunched.

"I mean, the whole of Forest Mill felt the ground shake when it hit, but it took me and Travis a day and a half trekking through this awful weather just to get to the site. The forest was completely trashed for several miles in all directions and there's this crater in the middle of it all that had to be half a mile across. No kidding, this thing was huge, there were still fires burning here and there when we got there. It's a good thing we've had such a particularly wet winter or we'd have a major forest fire on our hands right now. Anyway, we were standing around feeling kinda useless in the face of all this devastation, and Travis was staring into the crater saying 'Shit' like he does, when up pops this stranger in a ranger uniform and prods me in the back." Jeff prodded the air in front of him to illustrate.

"I nearly jumped out of my skin. God knows where he appeared from, all there was was wet ash and smoke, I'd have sworn we were alone." His weathered but still youthful features took on a distant look for a moment as he recalled the scene in detail and murmured, as if only to himself, "He looked a bit out of it, like he was drunk or something."

Jeff returned his attention to his drink. "Of course, I said 'Who the hell are you?', but he just took one step back and keeled over."

"So what did you do?" said Doug, on cue.

"Well we couldn't leave him there, even if he is some nutcase who thinks he's a ranger. We brought him back with us. He was unconscious for the whole of the two days it took us to drag his sorry hide back to town, so we took him up to old Doc James's place."

Jeff paused and took a gulp of his beer.

Doug filled the gap. "Was he injured?"

"No, that's the funny thing, there wasn't a mark on him. I can only think that he was either ill or was on something. What beats me is if he was so weak he couldn't stand, how the hell did he get all the way out there, especially without us seeing him approach."

"Weird."

"Too right."

"Maybe Doc James will be able to find out more when the guy wakes up."

"Yeah, I'm hoping to find out why he was wearing that ranger uniform. He looked kind of familiar, but he's no ranger from around these parts."

"Is it that big a deal?"

"Depends on why he was wearing it, I guess." said Jeff, with a shrug. "It'll have to wait though, I have to take some government team out to the crater tomorrow as soon as it gets light."

*****

I ache for the warmth of a star to penetrate my substance, to flex and flow and spread myself out to the life giving radiation that permeates lowspace. The irony is not lost on me that although it is the sometimes unpredictable nature of lowspace which has brought me to this plight, it is also now the only source of the energy which sustains my kind, allowing us to continue our long and peaceful existence straddling the barrier between highspace and lowspace.

I still my mind, my situation hasn't changed, it never does, my loneliness gnaws away at my being while the distant stars stare as dispassionately as ever. I may as well meditate, another countless number of cycles spent in self imposed oblivion is greatly preferable to watching the slowly circling void.

*****

Forest Mill, a one horse town out in the foothills of Washington state's Cascade Mountains, except nobody there ever owned a horse. The town was basically the workforce of a timber mill and their families, until the timber mill went bust in the 1920s. Somehow, what remained of the small community managed to carry on regardless, its people used to hardship, cold fogbound winters and a lot of rain. That rain was currently hammering with all the zeal of a demented drummer on the night swathed exterior of a well tended house nestled in the lee of a hill on the very outskirts of town. The windows were lit by an inviting amber glow from within, the house's two occupants oblivious to the harsh conditions outside.

"Dad, I know you don't want to leave this place, but now that Mom's gone, it's too remote from the rest of civilisation to live here all on your own. Please consider coming to Seattle."

Doctor Marcus James looked gently over his glasses at his daughter. "Karen my dear, it's precisely because your mother is gone that I wish to stay. This is where all my memories of Alice are most alive." He studied her for a moment. At thirty five, her softly curled auburn hair, hazel eyes and slightly snub nose made her the spitting image of her mother at the same age. Like her mother, Karen didn't give up easily.

"But what if you had an accident, or took ill? If you'd been living nearer to a hospital, Mom might still be alive."

"I know," said her father with a sigh, "but I can't change the past. Now that she's gone, I don't see the point in uprooting myself just to be near a hospital. When my time comes, I shall be happy to join Alice. I'm not interested in postponing the inevitable."

"Oh Dad." sighed Karen, dismayed.

"No, I mean it. Death comes to us all, and not always in the form we expect. Look at that meteor strike that was on the news earlier this week. Just a few short miles away. We all felt the shock of it and heard the explosion, it could just as easily have been slap on top of Forest Mill."

"I suppose, but I wish you'd at least consider my proposal. My point is still valid, you know. This meteor missed you, and I doubt there'll be another one along any time soon."

"True. This sort of thing is pretty rare. I wouldn't be surprised if it changes things around here, it's bound to bring in a few tourists."

"It already has. Did you know that there are some government people in town to investigate the impact site?"

"Good luck to them then, they said on the news that they hadn't been able to get any helicopters to the scene because of the weather, I doubt it's much easier on foot. This winter's been particularly bad, even for east of the Cascades."

"Apparently they can't find their way there on foot either, because Jeff and Travis hightailed it out into the wilds as soon as they saw the smoke on the horizon and haven't been seen since." Karen frowned, "I don't know what they thought they could do."

"Are you still sore at Jeff for breaking up with you when you were a teenager? That was nearly fifteen years ago."

Karen pouted at her father and smiled, "Of course not, Jeff and I are fine. I meant the two of them were hardly going to deal with something of that magnitude by themselves, they just fancied a bit of an adventure. Meanwhile, the experts who should be on the scene are left cooling their heels waiting for local guides who can take them to the impact site."

"Well, I guess whatever it is isn't about to go anywhere, so a day or so won't..."

The sudden sound of the doorbell cut across the doctor's statement.

"Get that will you dear, getting up once I'm settled isn't as easy as it used to be."

Karen opened the front door to find a tall figure in heavy duty hooded waterproofs, features hidden in darkness, dripping copious amounts of water onto the porch.

"Hello?" she asked.

"Hi Karen." came a familiar voice.

"Jeff?"

"Yeah. Is your father in? We've got someone in the pickup who needs some medical attention."

"You'd better bring them in then. Is it serious?"

"I couldn't really say, but he's been unconscious for a couple of days now."

"It's not Travis is it?"

"No, it's a stranger. We found him out at the crater where the meteor hit."

"Well, you bring him in, I'll get Dad's medical kit."

*****

Subtle tendrils of warmth creep into the edge of my consciousness, breaking my meditative stasis. I have no immediate idea how long I have been dormant, but my senses tell me exactly how far I have travelled. The distance is utterly staggering, not only in terms of lowspace, but also of highspace, where both distance and movement are somewhat... different. I find myself once again in awe of the vastness of creation. Taking in my surroundings, the source of the so very slight warmth is revealed. A small yellow star lies just off my projected path, a welcome neighbour for one so alone as myself. Dare I hope that gravity might set me in orbit, that I might thaw, flex and eventually produce offspring, companions, a new concert? I cannot move yet, but for the first time since I was knocked out of my orbit around my home star, I have hope.

*****

"Lay him down on the bed, please." The two rangers did as the doctor requested and stepped back to let the old man get to his patient.

"He feels like he's burning up with fever, we'll have to get his temperature down. Karen, see what you can find in the freezer." Doctor James looked up at the two rangers, his hand still on the stranger's forehead. "Have either of you had any symptoms? Dizziness? Headaches? Weakness?"

Both men shook their heads.

"We're both pretty beat, Doc," said Travis "but no more than you'd expect after roughing it for a few days. You think it might be catching?"

"I wasn't thinking about pathogens, although that's a remote possibility, so much as toxins or radioactivity. There's no telling what that meteor was made of or how much of it is now airborne particulate matter around the site of impact."

The two rangers stole an uncomfortable look at each other.

"Quite." said Doctor James. "Karen tells me there are some government experts in town waiting to be taken to the site. Now it occurs to me that they would be better equipped to check you two over for traces of radioactivity and suchlike, plus they'll be pleased that their guides have turned up at last. You two had better head down to the hotel, Karen and I can look after our friend here."

He looked down at the recumbent figure, raised his eyebrows suddenly and looked up at Travis. His gaze flew back and forth a few times.

"Travis, any idea who he might be?"

"No, never seen him before he turned up at the crater."

At this point, Karen returned with assorted packs of frozen vegetables.

"Ah, good." said Dr James, "We'd better get him out of these clothes. Once we've done that, my dear, you can pack the cold bags around him while I examine him for any injuries."

"We'd better get going then", said Jeff, "I want to make sure I'm not going to start glowing in the dark. Let us know how he gets on."

Karen looked up from removing the patient's jacket. "He'll be ok, you did the right thing bringing him here. Good luck with the tests, both of you."

Jeff nodded and guided Travis out of the room. "We'll see ourselves out."

*****

I am no longer in any doubt as to my final destination. The blue and white planet looms large, obscuring my view of a large portion of the heavens. What a beautiful and deadly object it is, its gravity drawing me ever more rapidly into its embrace. Were I not still frozen, perhaps I could flatten into a disc and skip off the outer layer of the planet's atmosphere, but as cold as I am, I can do nothing. Maybe it is for the best, a way to end my lonely exile. I am resolved then, I shall accept this as a mercy, a fate preferable to another eternity drifting across the void. Already I feel the buffeting of the thin outer atmosphere, cold at first, but quickly getting warmer as it gets thicker and friction starts to generate heat. An unanticipated gift, the warmth has made my outer surface flexible! It is not much, but I can at last flow at least in part. Moving my thawed substance away from the area of greatest friction, I can expose yet more of my frozen body to the blessed warming. Oh, this is heaven! I thank the creators for gifting me this brief respite before I die. I can flex, I can flow, I can spread myself wide to the heavens at last!

*****

"Sir, you'd better see this."

Deputy Director Carter looked up from the papers in front of him. "What is it, Foley?"

"It's a copy of an urgent report from Early Bird, Sir".

"The early warning system at NORAD? They'd sound the alarm if we were being attacked, not send out a report to the ACIO."

"No Sir, they tracked a meteor strike in the Darrington Ranger District, but the readings were odd enough to warrant further investigation."

"Ok, let me see that. Are there many people in the area?"

"It's remote forest, Sir, so it's unlikely."

"Good. Hmmm, this does look somewhat unusual. You have the original report?"

"Yes, Sir."

"Then get Analysis to take a look at it immediately. I want their conclusions on my desk within the hour."

"Yes, Sir." Agent Foley turned to leave.

"Oh, and get Agent Haskell called back from vacation, will you?"

"Yes, Sir." The young agent left the room, leaving Deputy Director Carter mulling over the tracking figures in the report.

Two days later, Agent Haskell of the Advanced Contact Intelligence Organization stood gazing out of the window of a small suite in the only hotel in Forest Mill. His briefing with Deputy Director Carter the day before was still fresh in his mind.

"Haskell, I'm authorising a team of our scientists to be dispatched to the area where the meteor came down."

Agent Haskell raised one eyebrow slightly. "Sir?"

"Your responsibility will be to look after security and assess the need for our continued involvement. You'll need local guides, it's a remote area, but they are not to come into contact with any material of a sensitive nature. Use the NSA identification where necessary."

"What sort of thing should we be looking for? The meteor probably vaporised on impact."

"I'm not altogether sure, but I want you to take a look. I had the tracking data checked and rechecked by our best people and they came to the same disturbing conclusion each time."

"Sir?"

"The meteor's radar signature changed as it fell. Besides it being a regular six pointed star, the radar images seem to indicate it doubled in size before it hit."

"Perhaps it was breaking up."

"Possibly, Agent Haskell, but it was slowing down while it did so."

Agent Haskell brought his thoughts back to the present and picked up the telephone.

"Get me the local Ranger's Office." There was a pause as the operator made the connection.

"Hello? This is Agent Lance Haskell over at the hotel. Any sign of your two men yet? No? Then get them to call me as soon as they get back. It's extremely important." He scowled with irritation as he put down the receiver and lit a cigarette. Bad enough that his mission was being delayed, but the three specialists down the hall had been pulled off other ACIO projects in order to come on this wild meteor hunt. Probably a complete waste of time anyway. He poured himself a bourbon from the mini bar and went back to staring out of the window into the storm.

*****

In the beginning, there was darkness without form. Gradually, there was light, trickling in from a multitude of rents in the void. With the light came awareness, as torn and tattered as the light that brought it. Awareness struggled against disorientation and pain to become consciousness, a weak and battered thing that clung to life by a thread. Instinct and need drove a slow coalescing, a gradual coming together of self. I am hurting, confused. I am warm though, but with a great weight dragging me down. I relax my hold on self and the weight eases. I drift, taking note of what lies outside self for the first time. I am surrounded on all sides except above by hard roughness. I flow upwards into grey softness and reach a level where the hard roughness flattens off and becomes a grey undulating flatness marked here and there with a bright flickering. I drift again. The bright flickerings are warm, but seem to be dying out, as they consume long thin objects which then turn into the grey coating that covers the uneven flatness. There are not many of the thin objects left in my immediate vicinity. A long way off, through the obscuring grey softness, a band of darkness marks the end of the grey terrain. I ache for something, but not knowing what, I flow towards the boundary, knowing only that my need is not served by my current surroundings. Eventually, I reach the perimeter, which has resolved into more of the long thin objects, some standing upright, which have not been consumed by the bright flickerings. Here the surface beneath me is covered by a multitude of small needles which give off a pungent vapour in the warmth. Moving further into the region of unconsumed objects I find I am leaving the warmth behind me and becoming cooler. It soon becomes an effort to maintain my dissipated state and I contract, giving in to the downward pull as I do so. I flow on my way across the soft needles, noting occasional vibrations against my surface which coincide with small movements here and there. I follow the source of one of the larger vibrations, not giving off any of my own, until I come across a dark creature stumbling around without apparent purpose, but with obvious self awareness. Feeling an overwhelming need for kinship, without conscious thought I flow into a likeness of the creature and move towards it, struggling to keep control of four appendages against the pressure of my weight. Aware of my approach, the creature raises itself up on two of its appendages, opens an aperture at its upper end and emits more of the coarse vibrations I had detected. I can discern no meaningful pattern to the vibrations, but perhaps it is too early to tell. I try my best to imitate the posture and vibrations of the creature in the hope that I can gain insight and eventually understanding, but the creature, perhaps sensing my lack of comprehension, drops back to its original position and hurries off. Keeping this solid form is tiring me, and I am in pain, a blackness appearing around the edges of my consciousness, so I relax into a more formless state. I hope this is not to be my only encounter with life. I fear to be alone, although I have no idea why.

*****

Having taken off the stranger's jacket, Karen was having trouble with his shirt.

"Dad, his buttons don't undo."

"Never mind," said her father, flicking a syringe with his finger, "just roll up his sleeve for now."

"Er, I can't do that, either."

"What? Let me see." Dr. James took hold of his patient's wrist and inspected the cuff of the shirt sleeve. "Well I'm blowed, it's attached to him! It's like it's glued on or something."

Karen checked the man's shoes, then his trousers. "None of his clothes come off!" she exclaimed, then added "Well, except for his jacket".

Dr. James kept his hold on the man's wrist for a moment, then reached for his throat, his experienced fingers seeking out the carotid artery. He grunted dismissively.

"We've been had, my dear. Jeff's playing a little joke. I don't know where he got this from, but it's no unconscious stranger. It's not even alive, it must be some kind of dummy. Amazing workmanship though." he said, peering closely at the dummy's head. "No wonder I thought it looked a bit like Travis, they probably used a mould of his face." He put on a wry grin. "Will those boys ever grow up?"

*****

Having flowed my way silently after the two new creatures until we reached the edge of the cleared area, the warmth of the clearing makes me feel light enough to dissipate and blend with the other mists and vapours shrouding the area. These creatures are different from the first, their posture is upright, they have loose outer coverings and there are patterns to the vibrations they produce. Their seeming intelligence draws me to them, eases the hunger I feel, so I drift with them as they make their way towards the hole where I began. I wonder if they are like me, and if so, why do they not float without effort, as I do. They seem very interested in the edge of the cavity, looking around, exchanging short sequences of the vibrations that I'm now convinced are their mode of communication. A sudden thought occurs to me. What if they are here for me? Since their physical forms seem to be important to them, in spite of the extra effort that the heat costs me, I contract into a shape resembling both of them. The weight I feel immediately takes it's toll, the blackness encroaching as I reach out and touch the nearer of the two creatures and adjust my density to match it's own. As the being in question suddenly turns and tries to communicate, I can feel myself losing my grip on awareness. I give in to black oblivion.

*****

"Jeff's not at home yet." said Karen, putting down the telephone. "He's probably still at the hotel with that team of experts."

"Either that or he's in the bar, telling everyone how he got one over on old Doc." retorted her father. "I wonder if he and Travis even went to the meteor site. A trick like this must have needed a fair bit of preparation. No wonder he was keen to leave, he was probably having trouble keeping a straight face."

"I'm amazed he'd spend money on something like this. He doesn't earn a great deal, and that dummy must have cost a pretty penny to make." Karen glanced towards the door of the bedroom where it lay. "I've not seen anything that realistic even in big budget movies." She looked back towards her father. "We should probably hang on to it, he may want it back."

"Leave it where it is for now. I don't feel like manhandling it around, it looked heavy when they brought it in."

"Ok. We can get in touch with Jeff when he gets back from escorting those people to the meteor site." She yawned. "Right now though, I'm going to get ready for bed."

"I think I'll do the same. Goodnight, my dear."

*****
I am lying on a soft surface in a regular enclosed space. There is subdued light entering through a narrow slit to one side. I feel comfortable, cool and without pain. I am aware of a constant drumming vibration from a transparent area set into one end of my enclosure, but it is essentially random so I soon stop paying attention. I listen out for other vibrations and am rewarded by odd patterns emanating from the same direction as the light. Not the intelligence revealing patterns of the two beings I had encountered before, but not random either. I am curious, this world is wonderfully strange, so I push myself up and adopt the upright posture I had seen the two intelligent creatures use. The part of myself had I used to imitate the loose covering of the being I touched is draped over an upright object nearby, without conscious thought it flows to me and we are one. Since the covering had been removed, I don't feel it necessary to recreate it, so I concentrate instead on moving in the way that I'd seen the two creatures move, alternating one appendage in front of the other. It is difficult, my weight keeps pulling me over, and I have to adopt a more stable shape a few times, but once I enlarge the flat bases of the appendages I find that I can move slowly and stay upright. I approach the slit through which both light and occasional vibrations are entering. Suddenly, there is movement beyond the slit, which widens to reveal another upright creature, different from the other two, but similar also. Eager to initiate contact, I try to simulate the vibratory greeting the other being had used. I am both surprised and pleased by my success.

Karen was cleaning her teeth when she remembered that she'd left a month's supply of vegetables defrosting on the bed around Jeff's joke patient.

"Djamn!", she mumbled around the toothbrush.

Quickly rinsing her mouth and drying her face, she made her way to the spare bedroom to see what she could salvage. "We'll probably have to eat nothing but peas and broccoli all week." she thought to herself as she opened the bedroom door.

Her heart leapt into her mouth as she froze motionless in shocked silence. Just inside the room, bathed in the light entering from the passageway, stood the dummy ranger. As Karen's brain struggled to get her limbs moving, the dummy opened its mouth and, tongue vibrating like a speaker cone, made a sound like an old wind up record player.

"Hoothahellayu."

Karen discovered that she still had access to her vocal chords. She screamed until the dummy melted into the carpet, then she fainted.


 

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