© Alison Sinclair, 1998
Someone said, ‘I don’t effin’ believe it.’
And so, came Morgan’s first returning thought, their endeavour was blessed. He drew breath, and the smell of it told him that he was no longer where he had drawn the breath before. There was a strange scent to the air, an aroma almost like spices. The light too had changed, now the light of a tranquil early morning, not the light of spotlights carving open a rainy night.
He had been standing on the spotlit sand, looking out over a black and starless sea. It had been raining on Chesapeake Bay for most of the day and night before they left, raining on people, spotlights and the cameras, mounted and unmanned, which were to record what was to happen for the people who were staying behind. Now he was here.
‘Holy God,’ said the disbeliever, awed, ‘They took us all.’
All: he heard a murmur dense with pitches, all languages blended together. The voices rose like voices in a cathedral, hushed and folded in on themselves. His gaze followed the voice upwards and he saw that the nearest wall arched overhead as though in a cathedral, but higher than even the most aspiring of cathedrals. The farthest wall was well over a kilometer away, probably two. The cave – or vault – or chamber – was crudely circular, although the walls bulged and receded in places, shaping shallow headlands and bays. He could not tell whether the walls were stone or metal or some other material, but they were near-white and honeycombed with openings like caves for most of their great height. Light shone from the walls, not dazzling, but giving the sense of a fullness. He looked down, and down, and suddenly saw faces, and more faces, all hues, all ages, both sexes, shadowless in the pervasive illumination. All. The aliens had taken them all, everyone, it seemed, everyone who had offered themselves in answer to the sparely worded invitation and the simple instructions contained therein. Of every race and colour and walk of life, in every state of preparedness or unpreparedness, bewildered or grinning or wondering. All. Simply lifted up and transported … here.
… It was peaceful, here in this alien twilight. She thought of dusk on the pier on Lister’s Pond. Lights from the cabins across the water. The sound of voices from the porch and open windows behind her. The flickering of fireflies in the thick darkness under the firs. The feel of the cooling air on her bare skin. The kiss of sun-heated water on the soles of her feet. Mosquitoes, whining unseen in the dusk. She never felt the bites that studded her skin all summer.
She wondered now at her ease in time, even in the winters away from Lister’s pond when time was marked to others’ measures – birthdays expected, school grades worked through, phone calls anticipated. Even she had suffered the exquisite, excruciating boredom of adolescence, of wasting time because it was her time to waste. She was old enough to have forgotten her grandfather’s death; self-absorbed enough to be untroubled by her aunt’s bleak withdrawal, and her uncle’s mad, uncomprehending eye. Even when she heard the name, familial Alzheimer’s dementia, and heard for the first time the explanation of its inheritance, she summed her chances with all the blithe assurance of youth: if two out of four have it, and there’s a fifty percent chance, that’s it: mother shouldn’t. She was the youngest daughter’s youngest: cherished and protected and spoiled, cradled within the family’s golden cocoon. How could any ill fortune attend her? … She remembered how she had sat in the summer’s night and secretly numbered all the things she would outlive. If they had time, so too would she. It was the thought of all those brief lives, of insects, of medieval peasants and kings, that comforted and sustained her.
The summer after her mother’s diagnosis, while her mother was still too deeply depressed to care about family traditions or family heroism, Sophie herself had polished the silver and set the table, and laid out the cookbooks, and tried to recreate what her mother had created, all those years. That golden place where they would all have time enough.
Ironically it was her own table that a friend had betrayed her. Rachel, her closest friend among her medical class, whom she herself had introduced to the elder of her two brothers. Rachel, who of all people she thought should understand. Rachel, who at their midsummer feast did what she, Sophie, had chosen not to do, insisted on discussing their genetic fate. She had described the linkage analysis as used to follow the inheritance of genetic defects through family lines; she had proselytized about the benefits to science and to the human community of studying another family with this so common dementia in its inherited form, and she had reared up to declare shiningly that she could not bear children to this man she loved if she must put those children at risk of a disease which would take away their minds in middle age. And so she began the dividing of Sophie’s family into the damned and the saved.
It was weird what happened on the beach. I don’t remember getting here at all. I got together my stuff and snuck out the sliding door and went straight down the steps to the beach. You guys were all down watching it on TV. I suppose maybe I should be a bit glad of the row because it meant you thought I was just sulking. But I didn’t start it deliberately, honest. Sometimes things just get said. Anyway down on the beach it was like waiting for fireworks with all these people standing around. Nobody was talking much. Waiting to be scared or have all the lights come on and people jump up and kill themselves laughing at the big ha-ha-funny joke see how we fooled you. I didn’t want to talk to anyone so I looked out to sea and counted down to midnight.
This is where it got strange. I saw something dark over the water, even though I hadn’t seen anything coming in to land. People suddenly started screeching and trying to run away like a moment ago they hadn’t been shoving and jiggling to see better. Somebody knocked me onto the sand. I was just starting to get up, I remember that. And just like they say in books the next thing I knew I was standing in this place.
I remembered about the explorers – Columbus and Vespucci and Cook and Quadra and my hero Magellan. I can’t explain why he’s my hero because I know that if we were sitting next to each other on a bus it would be instant hate and loathing. He was a complete fundamentalist and I’m allergic to God-the-Father and all that. But he really believed in his vision. I know it’s kind of inconsistent to admire something like that because these people can be real menaces to have around. But there it is. What I started to say is that I was standing looking into one of those caverns and thinking about the guys in those little ships with all those storms and scurvy and mutiny and yellow fever and lashings and maggoty biscuits. I just thought how how lucky I was. I’d just blinked and here I was and my body was strong and my spirit was glad and I could really look at what I was seeing. It’s hard to put into words. When I’ve found a place to be I’ll get out my paints and start trying to draw what I’ve been seeing. I might not know what I’m looking for now but I know I’ll know it when I find it. It will be the place I want to make my own. I think where I want to be is up in one of the caves in the walls. If you look right at them you can see they’re green deep in because there’s a sort of green blush. It’s not like I don’t want to be with people but just that I’m going to be picky. When I find the people I want to be with I’ll share my place with them. Until then I’m better off alone.
At the base of the ramp the light went out.
For a moment he thought someone else had kicked it over or blown it out. But the group on the stairs halted their slow climb, and the lantern-carriers laid down their lanterns and moved away. He heard weapons shifting and the muted clicking of catches being released and bolts drawn. Then the two lanterns on the ramp flickered briefly, and went out.
There were a few more sounds, of stumbling, of fumbling, of falling, of a clatter of dropped weapons. He wondered how long it would take for the gas or whatever it was to mount up to his level, and whether he should relight the lamp for the few seconds warning it would give him. Like the angry voice outside the door or the feet on the stairs – and after only a little thought he chose not to. Much good his instinct toward caution would do him now. Beneath him in the darkness he heard wisps of sound like feathers dragged along bark or fine silk on wooden floors. Indistinct clicks, some like insects’ tiny mandibles, and others like claws delicately treading stone. Yet not like either. Not like any sound he had ever heard, even at night, in the forests. The small hairs on the nape of his neck pinched and rose as one. The sweat on his face grew cold. Though he knew better, he strained his eyes staring into the utter darkness, and found himself fighting the irrational conviction that there was something at close by, something coming up on him, and that the drop before him was less terrible than what was behind him.
Light sparked into being below him, a single, bright point, wavering slightly in the draft of something’s withdrawal. His own candle, relit. And by its light he caught a glimpse of something moving away. Only an edge of it, a ragged edge of it, not its colour or shape or true size. The movement was a smooth sway away from the light, and whether it represented a body shifting its bulk, or a single immense extremity being withdrawn, he could not tell. But he knew with utter certainty that it was not human.