Story Excerpt

An Alien on Crete

by Neal Asher

Erickson slipped his car out of gear and took the handbrake off to set it rolling down the road. The wheel felt leaden without power steering, but that kicked in when he started up the engine at the bottom of the hill and came to a stop at the junction. He wasn’t sure why he was doing this now. Old Maria had died last year and would no longer be rushing out with her shopping list and endless complaints about her health, and endless detail about her feud with her neighbor Yannis. Maybe it reminded him of past stability and a life rooted in the prosaic.

At the junction he watched a big 4x4 trundle past, uniformed figures inside peering at him suspiciously. There were soldiers in the mountains. This wasn’t exactly an astute observation since just a short drive from his village put him in sight of the “No Photographs” signs, the chainlink fences and the radar installations sitting on some of the mountaintops. But now their presence had become overt. He had seen canvas-backed trucks loaded with them, jeeps driving uniformed bigwigs and once an armored car sitting on a track leading up to one of the wind farms. He had also been turned back on the route to one of his favorite restaurants sitting above a cove on the east coast, and seen soldiers on foot walking in a line through the olive groves. Two had even turned up at the kazani some nights back to drink raki. They had been closed-mouthed about what was occurring, until on their second brizola, by which time the raki had done its work.

Erickson’s Greek wasn’t the best, at least then, but he did manage to catch some of it. Their search related to what all had seen in the skies three nights back. The object had streaked in from the south, lighting up the night, pieces breaking away, and had come down in the mountains to the northwest. Most assumed it was a meteor, though that hadn’t stopped black-clad grannies crossing themselves and querulously calling for their god to protect them from this evil, while some feared that it had been something fired from Libya. He found the memory hilarious. Libya.

“Haven’t they found it?” Yorgos had asked, well into his cups and sitting with the absolute rigidity of someone very drunk.

The soldiers told how they had found the impact site and some pieces, which had been collected up and taken away, but of the main object there was no sign. The army suspected locals had spirited it away for sale. When they had finished relating this they suddenly looked very worried, for they had told too much. The younger one caught his mustachioed companion by the shoulder and whispered urgently in his ear. They put down their glasses and quickly departed, their jeep weaving down the road.

Erickson grimaced, pulled out of the junction and accelerated, but not so fast as to catch up with the 4x4. He didn’t want to be stopped and, apparently, that was happening now. Cars were being searched for pieces of the meteorite, which were now government property. Quite likely they were looking for those fragments, but it was no damned meteorite and hadn’t come from Libya.

No one stopped him on the way down from the mountains, which he now gazed upon with a clarity he had lacked since first coming here, but police had parked at the turn into the coastal village of Makrigialos. Some were local, some were from the nearby town of Sitia, and others were those whose sum purpose was grabbing up illegals. Erickson wondered if the alien fell into the jurisdiction of the last, because certainly someone knew about it. The bullet holes told that tale.

They paused to watch him drive past. It struck him as likely that they had been told to search all cars, but right then it was time for frappe coffee and cigarettes. He drove into the town, the deep blue of the Libyan Sea glimpsed between the buildings to his left, finally pulled into the parking area before the butcher’s, and climbed out. Vegetables he had in plenty; he would also pick up some bread here, but most important was meat and plenty of it. Probably best would be multicellular stuff like liver and kidney. Yes, them and a good load of pork. The proprietors would assume he was stocking up for a kazani barbecue and attempt to sell him stuff on skewers again. Little did they know that none of the meat would get anywhere near hot coals.

Rationality was all.

*   *   *

The second day after the alleged meteorite came down, and after military vehicles began rushing about, he took a very long walk into the mountains. This time, rather than head up behind his house and through the wind farms, he had crossed the valley and headed up into wilder territory on the other side. The round trip was twenty miles. Before returning he walked a winding track through abandoned olive groves, feeling buoyant from the exercise. He strolled past the iron pylon of an old water pump windmill, fragments of its canvas sails still attached, paused to study a mass of dictamus—the allegedly health-giving Cretan tea—growing in a ruin, then, remembering the area, decided to pause for a rest on the wall of an old cistern that sat down at the bottom of a short track, hidden behind a stand of bamboo. The concrete tank was deep, he remembered, and during heavy rain it did fill up, but that tended to drain away quickly through cracks in the bottom. The only purpose it seemed to serve now in this deserted location was as a trap for unwary animals. One time he had stopped here and seen a small weasel running around in the bottom. He’d put in some lengths of bamboo in the hope it would have the sense to climb up one of them to escape. It hadn’t been there next time he looked.

Scrambling down the steep track, he reached the flat slab of stone lying between the cistern and the stand of bamboo. It looked as if someone had forged a path through the bamboo, but he couldn’t figure out why. He shrugged, moved over to the edge of the cistern, ready to sit down dangling his legs over the side. He’d spent many a happy interlude here contemplating his existence and reciting Greek verbs.

Something lay in the bottom of the cistern.

At first he thought someone had bundled bamboo and other debris, including electronic junk, in some black and purple fabric, rolled up the lot, and dumped it down here. This perception lasted perhaps half a second as his mind put together the mélange into a complete whole. No, he wasn’t seeing bamboo and olive tree prunings, but big insect legs attached to a long segmented thorax terminating in a squat abdomen. And the head that turned toward him, extending on a ribbed neck, seemed that of a spider, with two binocular eyes of deep ruby, with smaller ones on either side of it.

He stood there utterly terrified, primordial horror freezing him to the spot. He’d never been particularly frightened of insects or spiders, or of the scorpions he sometimes found in his house—in fact, he regarded them all with fascination—but this thing was bigger than a man. Next, slightly displacing the terror, he felt an odd twisting in his mind. It was as if he had shunted aside a filter of some kind; as if he had been seeing the world in sepia tones and now it hit him in full color and clarity. Yet, when he tried to analyze the difference to his past perception, he could not find it. His mind suddenly working very fast, he realized it must be the surge of adrenaline driving a feeling of disconnection, dislocation of the kind people experienced when suffering from extreme anxiety. From where in his brain that particular knowledge arose he had no idea for a second, then remembered it had been in an article he had read three years ago.

The creature flexed out its legs, heaved itself up, and scuttled to the far wall of the cistern. It tried to climb, got halfway up then slid down again, and slumped there panting. Erickson emitted a sound halfway between a gag and a yell and stumbled back from the edge, mind still twisting in his skull as if trying to fit itself around the utter implausibility of what he had stumbled upon. He wanted to turn and just run away from the thing but, more than that, he wanted to get away from the horrible sensations between his ears, and the bright bright clarity of his thoughts He was almost back to the path before his mind seemed to shift into another gear.

Panting . . .

Rationality is all.

The thing was panting, yet insects and spiders did not have lungs. Now other facts began to impinge. It had not been after him, because it had tried to climb out of the other side of the cistern. It was also leaking purple liquid from various holes, so had been injured and, in the final analysis, it had not been able to get out of the cistern. He walked back.

The creature still lay where it had fallen, its nightmare head turned toward him. He stared at it, instinctive fear of the shape it bore fading, but a larger fear still current in his mind. He faced something completely outside his compass, he knew this at once, and it felt as if his mind might break as he struggled to incorporate it. After a moment he managed to suppress this weird feeling enough to note other anomalies beyond the size of the damned thing. He thought he had seen junk electronics when first looking in here, but now he saw stuff attached to its body. Inlaid in its segments were plates of metal and other materials, scribed with cubic patterns and protruding studs and glassy blisters. A shiny triangular plate sat in its head above its eyes. Tight bracelets of metal circled some of its limbs.

The twisting in his skull increased and Erickson knew now what he was seeing, but decided, in an attempt to quell his mental chaos, to run through other options to be sure. Could this be some escaped genetic experiment? No, he was an avid reader of science articles and knew for sure that no one was anywhere near producing anything like this. But perhaps the military? Certainly not the Greek military, and why would any others do such experiments in a place like this? Remoteness might be a factor, but he seriously doubted it. Next he wondered if it could be a robot manufactured to appear alive. Certainly DARPA might be able to do something like that, and that might account for the tech he could see on its body. But again, this seemed a stretch, and he reluctantly returned to his original assessment. The light in the sky, the apparent meteor two nights back, and now this.

He was looking at an alien.

The mental twisting returned in force, and he closed his eyes. His mind seemed to want to leap out of his control and he fought it. It felt fragmented; coherent thought escaped him. Then, like an exploded glass in reverse, the pieces began to fall back together and slot themselves in place. He gained enough coherence to tell himself, “Accept it,” and “Deal with it.” But even so, he knew, in the pit of his being, that his mind had not returned to its original shape.

Now that he had come to a firm conclusion, he did not allow himself to question it, for that way lay chaos again. He wondered what to do and, as he considered this, his mind returned to the prosaic. As a sensible citizen he should just walk away from here, go to the police or the soldiers, and tell them what he had found. But he had never been particularly sensible and had little trust in authority. He gazed at the thing, noting those leaking holes, and it wasn’t much of a stretch to come to the conclusion they were bullet holes. What would happen to this thing once he turned it over? Quite probably the military here would put more holes in it until it stopped moving, then drag it off for examination. The Greeks weren’t exactly noted for their regard for anything that wasn’t human—in fact, their religion and culture tended to exclude it. Up here in the mountains they were only just getting to grips with the idea that setting fire to stray dogs might not be acceptable behavior. Also, what would happen to him once he reported this thing? Quite likely they would want to keep it quiet, so would provide him with limited accommodation with a locked door.

Option dismissed. He continued studying the thing, thoughts swirling in his head. Abruptly he came to a decision—it arising without any previous conscious consideration. He was some hours from his house. This thing had not been discovered and might have been here since yesterday, and he had seen no soldiers during his walk. He turned to go, then hesitated, turned back.

“I don’t know if you can understand me, but I’m going to help you,” he said. “I will be back in a few hours.”

Speaking seemed to root him back into some form of normality, yet still everything around him retained its clarity, its brightness, while his thoughts seemed sharp edged, dangerous.

The head, watching him, tilted to one side for a moment, then back again. It then dipped down and up again. A nod? He turned away and bounded back up the path to the main track, set out at a fast walk, but the buzz of adrenaline drove him into a run. He didn’t think as he quickly ate up the distance, he just experienced his surroundings. When, after a few miles, exhaustion slowed him to a walk again, he began to have some serious misgivings. He could be kidding himself that the thing had nodded at him. He should also bear in mind that his own kind had certainly shot it, so it might not be exactly friendly. Perhaps soldiers had shot it because it had attacked them? No, he had to stick to his rationality. If it was an alien it hadn’t come from anywhere in the solar system, because, surely, humans would have noticed an alien civilization so close. It came from another star, which bespoke technology and intelligence way beyond any on Earth. But then one had to wonder how the hell it had ended up trapped in a cistern in the Greek mountains?

During the ensuing walk he calmed to the steady hypnotic rhythm of his feet. He found himself noticing items around him he had never truly seen before, also recalling knowledge with odd precision; identifying plants and their uses, recognizing minerals and geology, stopping by a broken down pickup truck and visualizing the kind of engine it had and how it might have failed. Again he felt that clarity, but at a lower and more constant intensity. His surroundings came to utterly occupy him until, finally, he reached the track to his house, whereupon adrenaline surged again, and he broke into a run.

Finally, he entered his house, first chugging down a liter of water, then grabbing up some plastic sheeting, a large old blanket, and the high stepladder he used to paint his ceilings. He headed out, put these all in his 4x4, the stepladder protruding out the side window, got in, and drove. In just a few minutes he had reached the main road, took a turn into the mountains opposite his house, then another turn, and another. He had only driven out here once, to collect some of that dictamus. Going by road, rather than along the tracks between olive groves, it had taken him ages to find the location of the plants, and then he did so more by chance than design. Subsequently lost on the way back, he had ended up taking a long route over the other side of the mountains, then down to the coast before recognizing where he was and heading back to his house. This time he drove directly to the tracks leading to the cistern, remembering every turn and every dead end to avoid. Half an hour after leaving his house, he parked by the rough short path leading down to the cistern.

Erickson sat in his vehicle. The walk and the drive had been a distraction, but now he was back in the moment. The clarity remained, but still the situation felt unreal. He forced himself into motion and got out. Before heading down he spread the plastic over the back seat, eyed the area wondering if there was room inside, then dropped the back seats down to give more. He threw the blanket over the backs of the front seats in readiness. Then he walked down with the ladder.

The creature had moved to the near side of the cistern, directly below him. Now further very serious misgivings kicked in. The thing might well be injured, but when it had tried to climb the far wall it had moved quite fast and energetically. He might lower this ladder down and next thing he knew have the thing snipping off his head with those mandibles or sucking out his insides. He thought about going back to his car and fetching the club hammer from his toolbox, but then rejected the idea. He had to stay rational and believe in his primary assessment of the thing. Swallowing dryly, he lowered the ladder over the edge beside the alien and, rather than opening it, lodged it as firmly against the cistern wall as he could.

The creature moved—its limbs spiderlike, but also flexing in a way somehow smoother. When it gripped the ladder with its forelimbs he noticed long “hands” with rows of fingers running up their edges. The ladder shifted to one side and it paused, then abruptly came up in a fast scramble and over the top, the ladder crashing down in the cistern behind it. Erickson stepped back, ready for either flight or defense, eyeing a large rock lying over to his right, but the creature just stayed where it was, panting again. He stood upright. The thing sat on the rock slab between him and the track up. He gestured to the track.

“We go up there,” he said, reluctant to lead the way because that meant he would have to pass close by those long limbs and those mandibles.

It tilted its head again and made a sound, scraping and fluting, but did not move. Suppressing his fear he stepped forward, his skin prickling. The creature froze as he walked past it, and he wondered if it might feel the same about him. He remembered telling an old girlfriend who had been hysterical about a spider in the house, “It’s more scared of you than you are of it!” How much that applied here he wasn’t sure. He stepped on the path and gestured up, scrambled up a little way, and gestured again.

“Come on, it’s not far.”

The thing hesitated, then slowly heaved itself into motion. He kept checking back with it as it climbed, panting all the way. Its efforts on the ladder must have used much of its strength. Had this been a human with that many bullet holes in it, it would have been dead by now, and perhaps it would yet die.

Reaching his vehicle, Erickson pulled open the rear door and waited. A minute later the creature reached the track and moved forward. He gestured inside the car, then stubbornly, against the instinct to back off, remained by the door. Still panting, it moved right up close to him. He noted an acrid spicy smell and more leakage from its wounds. It began to climb inside, then paused to turn its head toward him. Again that fluting sound, then it struggled inside, folding up its limbs to fit then slumping. Its squat abdomen still protruded. Erickson stooped, got hold of it as if lifting a sack of cement, and heaved it in. The creature made a grating sound and the fluting increased to a frequency that hurt the ears, then it heaved some more to get all of itself inside.

“I’m sorry,” he said, wiping his hands on his shirt. “I know that hurt.”

The abdomen had been hot, and he wondered if that was usual.

It turned to look at him again, raised a forelimb and shook one of its hands. He leaned in and tossed the blanket across it. The creature immediately got the idea and pulled the blanket in all around it, its head protruding. He pointed at its head, then down.

“Underneath,” he said.

It ducked out of sight.



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Copyright © 2019. An Alien on Crete by Neal Asher

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