No Training Scenario Had Covered This!

It was time for maid service around his room when Gary got back, so instead of going into the room, he walked down the block to what turned out to be a middle eastern cafe. They served coffee and some form of pastry; Gary ordered what looked safe and waited at a small table. The clerk gave him the stuff to go, which Gary had not intended but he had no spirit to contest. He walked down the smallish commercial district of this neighborhood, a block of businesses punctuated at both ends with miniature strip malls. A number of storefronts were boarded up. One was newspapered over on the front windows, but the door was open and Gary could see a couple of desks and phones inside. He was contemplating why this interested him at all, but couldn’t see it yet.

He half expected to see the RV rumbling down the street or the dark-tinted SVUs that passed by his internal eye in a regularly replaying video of his last minutes on earth. His body, he realized as he walked, was in an ongoing state of alert, in an irregular flood and ebb of adrenaline and panic. His fingers were shaking visibly. He tossed the half-full coffee in a garbage can and wolfed the pastry, hoping that it had enough fat to take the sugar edge off. He looked into the passing faces more than his wont, and found his mind painting anguish and astonishment onto them, as his mind tried to guess how each would react to knowing what he knew.

Ignorance is bliss, he thought, with a nagging sense of how inadequate the satisfaction of knowing was. Ignorance. If he could have put a name to it, it would have been the cluelessness of the backward-facing, the experiential quantum mechanics that allows us to walk towards catastrophe, heads aloft and smiles pasted on, as if drudging along in infinite sameness.

Just a few minutes later, he was in front of the motel and couldn’t bear another turn around the district, so he went to his room. The maid was finishing up, so he stood on the exterior passage way as if enjoying a magnificent view. She finally came out with a flourish of disinfectant odors and dirty sheets, and pulled the door shut with a loud click that said, “I’m not losing my job for any tom, dick or harry who wants to sneak into this room. If you don’t have the key, you can get fucked.” Of course, she was mouthing Spanish to herself, probably no less piquant.

Gary was relieved to shut the door behind him. Even the partial muffling –street noise, someone’s booming car stereo and another resident’s television — seemed like a great relief. The bag was where he left it, and he pulled out the antenna and put it back on the table. The image was terribly small, as if nothing more than an incidental remnant. No sense waiting to see if the excitement was already over. He flipped the switch. His breath caught: after two seconds of nothing, he knew it was over. Maybe he would get credit from Alice for getting rid of it? Unlikely, given that she didn’t acknowledge its existence anymore. At least he could get out of this dump and get himself back to his own hovel and his own squalor.

But then, the green stain did grow, slowly and smaller than before, but there it was. Its intensity increased over the next minute, but it still seemed smaller, less robust. Maybe the antenna’s batteries were flattening out, or maybe the alien presence itself was a flashlight on a fading battery. Time to mix things up, thought Gary.

At the very moment he did so — delayed only by the travel time of electromagnetic particles up and down, and the flow of electrons in an quantum mechanically choreographed dance on a series of silicon wafers — the operator noticed a change. At first it seemed like another false positive, yet another notation in the log (“signal spurious”), but when he looked back, it was still there. Too small to be the signal from before, but not far off from where the signal was lost. Unfortunately, the mobile unit was off on some wild goose chase at — of all places — the dump. At least he could be thankful that he would never have to don one of those white plastic suits from the CDC and poke around stinking mountains of trash, armed with nothing more than a tweaked Geiger counter, pretending you’re looking for toxic bugs.

The order had come down through a series of intermediaries, in that strange mixture of feudalism and entrepeneurism that characterizes the military at the fringes. “Expect new orders,” had been the upshot; the first of these was mobile’s dump assignment. Usually new orders meant pulling up stakes and moving on to the next hopeless hole and the next bleak corner of a decrepit base. But this time everything was different. There was something about the signal, something about the scenario. The guard at the door seemed to feel it, too, seemed to stand a bit more upright, seemed to pay more attention to the goings-on inside that forsaken trailer.

He watched the signal for a time, then maneuvered the drone to a somewhat more advantageous course, after a check of local radar and a visual check of the cloud cover. He looked over his shoulder, half expecting the good doctor to appear, with another smart little addition to his stable. But he knew the next likely visitor would be a shadowy figure who went by the moniker “hunter.” He figured this man was the program’s real progenitor. In fact, he had the suspicion that this scenario, played out as just one among many, had been the real purpose all along, and everything else was just a distraction. Hunter would be coming to bring this exercise to a conclusion. And who knows, maybe shut down the program for good. You can always hope.

Gary had finished mixing the bowl’s contents with water — it stank slightly of the sea, he thought — and he put the bowl in front of the antenna on the table. He looked at the setup for a moment, and after looking around for the right prop, grabbed the Gideon’s Bible out of the bed table drawer and propped up the butt of the antenna under it. The green stain did nothing for a few minutes, and Gary felt increasingly uncomfortable with the delay. He had given up everything for lost — again — when the change finally began.

The operator, in fact, noticed the change first. Something unprecedented. The power of the signal started climbing, precipitously, but more importantly it began to pulse in a sinoid fashion. There was something new happening here. The signal began to spread, like a giant envelope of energy, well beyond what the strength would suggest. It was as if they were witnessing just the surface of a massive buildup on a broad but unmeasured set of frequencies. The sine wave’s frequency kept shortening, until finally the pulse itself was indistinguishable from a high-energy flow. The broader halo kept growing, many blocks wide now. He could picture a whole neighborhood, full of people flicking their remotes, suddenly and incomprehensibly unable to watch their televisions.

Gary noticed first that there were perturbations on the surface of the bowl. His own hands felt prickly, and pretty soon he was under a constant barrage of static shocks from the table, chair and even the carpet beneath his feet. When he realized what was happening to him, he jumped up and ran to the corner of the room. The bowl itself began to exude a luminescence, not unlike the blue glow he had once seen coming from a research fission reactor at his university. This association made him realize that he had taken no precautions against the simplest consequences of playing with glowing fire… It was a number of anguished minutes later, with sweat starting to pour from pores all over his body, that he saw the real change. A little tower of material was rising out of the bowl. It had an aluminum look to it, even though the aluminum powder was just a small part of its composition. Something was growing it — he figured that the signal was somehow cooking the insides and it was foaming up. But then he recognized that a form was taking shape. The emerging tower became a recognizable antenna structure pointed back at the larger twilight-zone antenna where the green stain had been — only now there were heat waves rising from somewhere in the middle of the antenna.

The operator, meanwhile, had been trying to make contact via radio with the ground team — against protocol, since they were not on patrol — and unsuccessfully. He shot another glance over his shoulder at the impassive man with the gun, but that implacable face seemed content to let him make his own mistakes. There was no question but things were changing, and rapidly. He left a message on the secure phone, asserting that no training scenario had covered this. That was bold, but if he didn’t do something, they’d have his hide when they saw the log.

Suddenly, the energy reading shot off the scale, even the logarithmic one. Dropping one scatological oath after another, the operator watched as the signal power peaked and slowly came down, hollowing out from the inside, as if it were some miniature supernova bursting at music video speeds. The phenomenon swallowed every bit of energy at the core and left a fading ring in the area surrounding it. Within a matter of minutes the signal was gone, back in the hole from which it had emerged.

Gary lay on the floor, in a state of metabolic shock, while the table smoldered, the light shade and curtains were singed, and the bed cover was burned through to the blanket. The wall was blackened in a circular shape. Above him and outside his perspective, a two-headed device had formed itself in the bowl, on the one side absorbing a green laser light that emanated from deep in the spiral antenna, and, on the other, seeking with something between a periscope and directional radar the creature that had called it into existence.